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Vanishing Point - Lost Ones

SCHOOL'S out in downtown Colombo, Sri Lanka. It is a few days before the Sri Lankan new year in April, and, at the gates of Bishop's College, a few students are hoisting a banner for Exstastics, a Sunday night extravaganza that's a hipper version of a gang show. All 650 seats at the theatre are sold out, and there is an endof-term frisson in the air.

Outside the theatre itself a beggar lies prostrate as the Tuk Tuks - the barely-legal three-wheeler taxi cabs - buzz by. Inside, a culture shock from the mysterious west is taking shape. The Glasgow-based Vanishing Point theatre company is preparing for the opening night of their Edinburgh Fringe hit, Lost Ones. This dark slice of gothic fantasy has arrived in town following stints in Kosovo and Macedonia, having first impressed the talent scouts in Edinburgh last August at the biennial British Council showcase.


The urban sprawl of Colombo - which became a powder-keg last week following a series of mine and bomb attacks on military targets by Tamil Tiger rebels - allows few youth activities outside a monthly rock night, where angry death metal bands have their say on the state of the nation. Mirchandani has brought in slam poet Lucy English to strut her stuff in local coffee houses and helps oversee, too, the Gratiaen Award for literature, initiated by Sri Lankan-born novelist, Michael Ondaatje.

Where Kosovan and Macedonian audiences were exuberant in their appreciation of Lost Ones, Sri Lankans are quieter. The show is different from anything the country's reserved audiences have seen, not just in its subject matter, which concerns a writerwhose imagination is troubled by the ghosts of his murdered classmates, but in its fantastical style as well.

With banners across town, the word on Lost Ones is most definitely out. Outside a Buddhist temple on the main road, where a chained elephant stands with a pink coat covering all of its body apart from the eyes, a man stops me. He asks me what I'm doing here, and I tell him I'm accompanying a theatre company from Scotland.

He already knows all about Lost Ones. "I met an Irish actress yesterday, " he tells me and shows a list of names on what appears to be a petition, and explains that he is a teacher at a school of deaf children. The name Claire Lamont stands out. The penny, or rather, the Rupee, drops.

"Claire Lamont made a very generous donation, " the man says, pointing to a figure next to Claire's name. I duly cough up and make my escape, hurrying past another man squatting on the roadside with a basket from which a cobra's head slinks out.

"It was my first day here, " Lamont tells me later, "I didn't know what I was doing, but it seemed like a good idea at the time."

At a drama workshop earlier, Vanishing Point artistic director Matthew Lenton, working alongside Lamont and fellow actress Catherine Whitefield, explained to a group of keen trainee teachers and students exactly where Lost Ones came from. He talked about guilt and forgiveness, and about the tabloid hysteria over the Jamie Bulger case, when two boys, themselves barely out of short trousers, tortured and killed a toddler as if he were a toy. He also talks to them about Vanishing Point's working methods, about how "making a mess in the rehearsal room and playing around like kids" can lead to something like Lost Ones.

Nineteen-year-old Dilum and his friends Hirano and Mayura are the three keenest participants in the room. Their bright-eyed openness is impish and charming, and their easy rapport stands out from more academically inclined members of the group.  

"Because of the political situation it's sometimes hard to be creative, " Dilum tells me. "But we are hungry for something more than what we have here. We want to be creative, too."

Lost Ones isn't the first piece of contemporary theatre from Scotland to play in Sri Lanka. In 1997 a delegation from the country, including TV ad director Steve De La Zilwa, visited Edinburgh's Traverse where they saw Anna Weiss, Mike Cullen's blistering play about "received memory syndrome".

Blown away, De La Zilwa vowed to stage it at home, and within a year his own new production, with an ad hoc semi-professional company - the norm in a country with only a few low-level artistic outlets - was playing to sell-out audiences.

Ariel Dorfman's play, Widows, which also made its UK debut at The Traverse, has received two productions, one in Sinhalese, the most common language of Sri Lanka, and one in English. Given recent events and Sri Lanka's general history of unrest and struggle between the government and the separatist Tamil Tigers, this Greek-influenced tale of women left at home during wartime has a far more obvious relevance to its immediate audience. Yet it is the far more controversial, taboo-busting Anna Weiss that has left its mark, and as theatre in Sri Lanka is subject to scrutiny by a censorship board, that speaks volumes about the desire for stronger fare. Every play-script must be presented before the board before a performance licence can be issued and while no-one seems entirely sure whether the scripts are actually read, lip service is paid to the process.

Lost Ones has had to be put through the rigmarole the same as any other script, and, despite more than a few "F" words, the production goes ahead unmolested.

On the first night the audience numbers just over a hundred. It's the smallest of the short run, which builds steadily over the course of the week.

According to Sri Lankan lighting designer Thusan Dias, who's been working closely with Vanishing Point's own designer, Kai Fischer, the show is the most significant imported inf luence on a moribund Sri Lankan theatre scene in recent years.

In the sixties, he says, theatre in Sri Lanka was at a high, be it performed in Sinhalese, Tamil or still-dominant post-colonial English. In the late seventies and early eighties, television took over, and many of the best dramatists moved into writing highquality soap operas.

By the 1990s, the country had to face insurrections in 1971 and 1989 and English-speaking theatre in particular was suffering. Then Shared Experience theatre company visited with their production of Mill on the Floss and when they returned in 2001 with Jane Eyre, local theatre-makers had learned from their example. "Vanishing Point will make an important mark in a different way, " Dias asserts. "Whereas Shared Experience was all about doing things in a big way, now, after Lost Ones, people will start using minimal things to their maximum level."

Coming from several generations of lighting designers, Dias was almost ruined when more than 70per cent of his equipment was washed away by the Christmas 2004 tsunami. Through Shared Experience, an appeal was put out to every theatre in the UK to help him continue his trade, and old stock was shipped out to Sri Lanka. The lights for Lost Ones in Bishop's College once belonged to the Royal Festival Hall in London.

Vanishing Point's final performance is the busiest yet, with more than 300 young people in attendance. They may be quiet, but afterwards many of them gather round Lenton and the cast, hungry for answers. They want to know how the magic of Lost Ones was created - and a group of boys has formed a fan club forWhitefield and Lamont. One or two, however, are interested in more spiritual concerns, about forgiveness and loss, and how tormented spirits can linger.

Whatever its appeal, Lost Ones is a hit and the headline in the Sri Lankan Sunday newspaper says it all. "Unconventional!" it roars, praising the show to the heavens. In Sri Lanka, as the kids who'll be at Exstastics that night know, that is becoming the highest praise.

Lost Ones will tour the UK in the autumn. Vanishing Point and Neil Cooper visited Colombo courtesy of the British Council.

The Herald, May 2nd 2006

ends

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