“Blowhards” – a review

“Blowhards: Braggarts, Boasters and Bastards” is the latest in Mind Adventures’ repertoire of thought-provoking theatre, albeit gentler and sparser in its conceptualisation and delivery than many of its predecessors. There are likely many reasons for this. The company’s method of devised theatre relies on the luxury of time and space to craft ideas, playfully improvise upon them, and keep the choicest interactions while brutally discarding the deadwood. However, Mind Adventures is currently in residence at the British Council, and (I believe) is tasked with producing twelve pieces of theatre during the year. With little time to work on content in danger of being jettisoned, they must necessarily follow a model that will allow them to be prolific in their output. The three short plays in “Blowhards”, written and directed by Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke, have none of the ferocious intensity of, say, “Paraya”, but are light-hearted, laugh-out-loud funny satires that play out in the cosy confines of the British Council library.

IMG_20150727_200759‘Tea/Coffee’ comprises two intertwined monologues that examine the relative ideological merits of drinking tea or coffee, and whose advocates are appropriately ensconced in armchairs as they expound their views. Ruvin de Silva plays Anuk, a recently-returned young Sri Lankan who is a tea convert and is convinced the golden-brown liquid runs through our veins. Thanuja Jayawardene is Shehani, a young woman whose indignation over tea plantation work rights (or the lack thereof) verges on a frequency inaudible to human ears.

IMG_20150727_202215‘Eco-Warriors’ is a mix of monologues on environmental issues. Pia Hatch is Deshini, a young mother whose desire to inculcate a love of nature in her children is somewhat undermined by her ignorance of basic biology. Leah Bazalgette plays Anna, an apparently eco-conscious intern whose privilege sparkles through her yoga-induced sweat. Ryan Holsinger is politician S.T.W.A. Amarasinghe, who believes that pulling the wool over his constituency’s eyes passes for environmentalism.

‘The Corn’, the last play on the bill, is a dialogue on politics in Sri Lanka, with Tracy Holsinger as Anoma, a hysterical hypochondriac, and Brandon Ingram as her son Jeevaka, who pompously berates his mother on her racist views while seeing no harm in using their ill-gotten gains to plan a tour of Spain.

That all are caricatures goes without saying, with each character extrapolating everyday foibles into a realm that hovers between reality and the ridiculous. And yet, each person could easily have been someone I know; an aunt, a neighbour, a friend, or even (most disconcertingly) myself. Here, the devising process served the cast well; the conversation was so fresh and chatty and natural that it made me squirm uncomfortably, even as I guffawed at the more ludicrous statements. I appreciated that discomfort, and the nudge it gave me to reflect on my own imperfections and affectations. Occasionally, however, dialogue felt a little rushed – the hazards of perfectly imitating Sri Lankan conversation – and I found myself straining to catch a sadly-swallowed gem.

IMG_20150727_204217Including ‘The Corn’ in the programme also served as a reminder of how difficult it is to craft good theatre. Monologues are easy to assemble, even as they run the risk of boring an audience. The actors in the first two pieces were free to push their characters to their caricatured limits, but Holsinger and Ingram were forced to authentically interact. The stories that unfolded through the monologues were relatively clean, being independent of each other, but the conversation between Holsinger and Ingram betrayed the messy process of devising. The tension between the two rose and fell a little unevenly, with some tropes merely being repetitive rather than heightening the issues at hand. The character development of Anoma and Jeevaka was also somewhat asymmetric, and I found myself wanting to know more about Jeevaka’s own hypocrisies. Perhaps, I admit, what I really wanted was a more incisive assessment of my generation of privilege-fuelled liberal young city-dwellers.

And yet I am most critical of this last piece because I liked it best. It made the first two seem too neat, too orderly. While ‘Tea/Coffee’ was well-assembled and ‘Eco-Warriors’ incredibly funny, ‘The Corn’ played out as does this messy life: circuitously, infuriatingly, and unexpectedly. I would willingly watch more of that mess. However, “Blowhards” is only the second of the twelve productions this year, and I’m certain we will see Mind Adventures taking more risks in their future work at the British Council, despite their constraints and commitments. As always, though, “Blowhards” provoked in signature Mind Adventures style, while providing a healthy dollop of laughter in the process.

(with apologies for the poor-quality phone pictures)

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