*This is a guest post by Tamara Fernando.
Arun Welandawe-Premathilleke’s 'The One Who Loves You So (TOWLYS)' was played at the Punchi Borella Theatre from August 15- 18, with an unplanned-for but much-in-demand repeat performance closing four sold-out shows. TOWLYS narrates the encounters between two men in Colombo, Vidura (Brandon Ingram) and Nick (Benjamin Aluwihare), who meet for sex in Vidura’s hovel down Marine Drive after matching on the gay hook-up app 'Grindr'. If Twitter reviews are anything to go by, TOWLYS was a resounding success. With stunning artistry in the set design and sensitive subject matter, the play achieved much in Colombo’s English-language theatre-going society.
The plot revolves around two encounters between the characters: the first set of scenes take place during their initial meeting and the latter scenes consist of their interaction following a chance meeting at a restaurant a few months later. Nick is an English accountant working on (what seems to be a short-term) a contract for 'a big bank with lots of money', while Vidura is a 'trust fund baby' -the son of a wealthy garment-industry capitalist, who does not really work because the employees at his father’s factory do not really want him there.
Aside from their sex scenes, the script consists of conversations between Nick and Vidura, and indeed, the work should be praised for this ‘pared down’, condensed presentation. The story takes place mostly within the enclosed space of Vidura's hovel and the performance is restricted to two excellent actors and their intimate conversations with no additional fuss of set changes, other performers or dramatic additions. As such, the characters’ dialogue—on gay identity, pornography, relationships with their significant others (or lack thereof) and ‘coming out’ experiences—takes centre stage.
Despite Nick’s initial suggestion that we ‘just get to the fucking,’ it is in the ensuing dialogue that the real meat of the play exists. Over time, interspersed between sexual episodes, the conversations turn to the characters' pasts, moving steadily up a scale of increasing vulnerability and disclosure (to an occasionally forced degree). ’Tell me something happy’, Vidura suggests to Nick in one instance. Vidura extrapolates on what it is like to be a gay man in Colombo, how hard it is to meet and find somebody to love and the social shaming he faces from friends, family and broader Colombo society. Nick confesses to a heady cocktail of sexual and narcotic experiences he subjected himself to while dealing with depression. (These experiences in England felt slightly detached from the context of the play and the meth-gangbang-poverty trifecta he was submerged in felt overworked).
As their relationship evolves, we discover that Nick has a girlfriend with whom he is in an open relationship with. She lives in the UK but visits occasionally. Surprisingly, despite the success of their initial dalliance, Nick does not contact Vidura afterwards until a chance encounter brings them into contact. In fact, Nick even avoids Vidura at the supermarket when he sees him. According to Nick, his girlfriend knows and accepts that he is sleeping with Vidura. Vidura becomes increasingly insistent that Nick is lying to himself about his gay identity, whilst Nick retorts that Vidura himself is unable to see past his own conception of the world. The characters are unable to reconcile these two versions of each other, Vidura longing for love and Nick proposing something of a different sort. Thus the play concludes without resolution, with Nick walking out, the conversation left unfinished and their desires, unfulfilled.
In terms of direction, having the actors bare-skinned really worked well to foreground the themes of intimacy and vulnerability (this comment holds true despite many audience members’ smiling protests that Aluwihare’s chiselled abs were a distraction). The artistic direction also requires special mention: the set was stunning. Steel frames created the space, complemented by a few select objects: a pink mosquito net, Vidura’s stove and books. All of this was beautifully lit in muted twilight tones to match the late evening ambience.
The transitions between scenes were artful. One highlight was the first stage transition, where shadowy male figures stood silhouetted as Vidura swiped aimlessly through his Grindr and generic, cringe-worthy bios played over the speaker. The same all-male cohort then acted as stagehands, moving objects around in preparation for the next scene.
Particularly worthy of admiration is the frankness of Welandawe-Premathilleke’s script, especially with reference to sex/sexuality. A brief taste of content included swallowing during oral sex, porn preferences (’that tranny stuff’), and how long to wait before anal sex (after one of their liaisons, Nick playfully tells Vidura that he should ‘probably clean up’, at which Vidura retorts that Nick should not have initiated sex so soon after their meal). In a socially and sexually conservative society, with homosexuality still punishable by law, there can be no doubt that TOWLYS was a fresh, relevant and necessary work of art.
Welandawe-Premathilleke’s work was sensitively crafted over time; preparatory work in the run-up to this performance involved conversations with activist LGBTQ groups and a previous iteration of the work ran in Hiriketiya in 2017, allowing for feedback and adjustment. Vidura functions as a stand-in for the experience of being gay in Colombo and suffers from all the associated social stigmas and shame. His straight friends (he tells us) deride apps like Grindr for being overly sexualized and view gay sex as promiscuous and shallow. His father (a product of toxic Sri Lankan masculinity, we must presume) does not acknowledge his son’s sexual identity. The prohibitions and tacit shunning of homosexuality in Sri Lanka’s legal code are dismissed by members of society as ‘illegal, but like, not really.’
Even though the play commendably made same-sex relations visible, sexualized and embodied, one might ask why the sex scenes were so effortless: a series of smooth penetration and climax. Either we can write the accelerated cocktail of sensuality off as a dramatic conceit. Or, if not, it suggests that 'representing the gay experience' requires smoothing out the kinks. As important as it was to feature onstage and in public, the perfectly orchestrated orgasms could have been more truthful to the realities of communication and preparation essential to any (cis/homo)erotic encounter, particularly for a play that did not shy away from its awareness-building capacities.
On the same note of raising social awareness, the critique of Colombo/Sri Lanka’s intolerance and dismissal of homosexuality felt at times to be less convincing than the personal dramas of the two characters. Vidura himself concedes that his experience is not typical for gay men Sri Lanka, or many who identify that way in Colombo because of his wealth and class. There was an attempt to bring into the conversation ‘all those who cannot have their names on their profiles’ for fear of the ramifications, but this was a play that said more about Vidura than it did about gayness overall in Sri Lanka.
The 'trust fund baby' phenomenon of empowered elite English-speakers in Colombo certainly exists, but one had a sense that this beautiful work could have functioned equally well out of the context of Colombo, supported by nothing but the steel girders of the set, focused on finding connection and love in the modern age. In one scene when the two men are introducing themselves, Vidura exaggerates the pronunciation of his name. This drawn-out articulation, ‘Vi-du-ra’, of local-inflected syllables came through as one site where the local did inflect a script that was in many ways globally relevant.
In other words, this play did not need to explicitly describe its mission as a work about ‘being gay in Sri Lanka’. The latter at times felt flat and stilted, and the play would have functioned equally well without it. Individual experience does ultimately say something of the whole and posturing to claim relevance for broader society may not have been necessary.
One promising and enigmatic part of the performance was the recurring motif of what Nick insists on referring to as a 'dollhouse' and Vidura calls a 'diorama', a miniature model placed at the front of the stage. Vidura, who claims that he ‘doesn’t really do anything’ makes these models as a hobby. On their first night together, Nick draws the audience’s attention to it, remarking that it is an exact replica of the apartment, and praising Vidura’s skill and ingenuity. In a critical moment towards the end of the play, after Vidura and Nick have a large argument about their role in each other’s lives, Vidura fiddles with a second stick figure in the miniature model, wondering whether to remove or place it. One wonders then, is the dollhouse a metaphor for the Welandawe-Premathilleke’s theatrical creation? In the programme, he writes, 'This is a play in which I am the centre.' In the same note, he adds a note about an unnamed figure who haunts the play: 'he who will never know.' Is the play, then, the director’s diorama, the story of two men, told with two actors, modelled with diorama figures in a cardboard house?
In an English-language theatre circuit that tends to favour slapstick comedy (invariably structured around tired insider references to politics or Colombo school culture) and big-ticket classic reproductions from Broadway and the West End, this small performance, locally written and directed, organically situated and performed by two skilled actors, functioned like a dose of the same heroin Nick describes from his drug-fuelled past: invigorating, exciting and welcome.
Image credits: You're My Favorite