After decades of civil war, Sri Lanka is shrugging off its past and repackaging itself as a luxury holiday destination. But some things can't be forgotten. Christine Bacon’s uneven documentary theatre piece is a look behind the beach umbrellas to the bloody battles fought on its coasts.
The Tamil Tigers’ defeat in 2009 is at the play’s heart: these rebel fighters were crushed by the Sri Lankan government after decades of trying to establish a separate nation state for the Tamil ethnic minority. But Bacon’s attempt to unravel the complexities of Sri Lanka’s recent history means that the play is bogged down by endless scenes of stilted negotiations between the country’s president, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, and Norwegian peacekeepers desperately trying to find some middle ground between the two.
These are dull scenes, and director Ria Parry’s decision to break them up with an endlessly repeated clip of Tamil drumming doesn’t do much to lend them urgency. Nor does a second, bluntly written ‘human interest’ plot strand, involving a friendship between Rebecca, an idealistic British UN worker and Nila, a young woman who’s trapped in Tamil lands that the Sri Lankan government is shelling into oblivion. It’s a white saviour narrative that puts all our focus on Rebecca’s ethical dilemmas, while Nila is left to cower in fear. Behind a gauze screen, actor Nikki Patel becomes victim after victim in a series of clunkily executed horrors of war: a surgeon performing a caesarean on her with what looks like a foot-long carving knife is a particular low-light.
It’s no more likely to prompt an emotional response than the projected film footage of childrens’ hands and tortured bodies: we’re missing the real stories behind the suffering. And in her close focus on skewering the UN for being ineffectual in a conflict situation (hardly a newsflash, that) Bacon misses out on really hitting us where it hurts: the Tamil’s persecution is a legacy of British colonial rule, which gave the minority group a disproportionate number of government posts.
Bacon’s play is an informative insight into a history that the Sri Lankan government would rather wash away. But by being forced to sit through regurgitated facts and projected film footage of atrocities we’re just replicating the kind of alienation that comes from endlessly rolling news channels - there’s no emotional pull to tug us under.