BATS Theatre
March 17-28 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

I AM usually incredibly generous and forgiving towards the production of plays by first time playwrights. The Sri Lankan conflict has recently been in the media again, so a play that examines its impact on a group of characters from New Zealand and Sri Lanka should be highly relevant. However, Serendipity was so flawed that I don’t think even the most generous of viewers could have forgiven its faults. It easily qualifies as one of the worst productions I have ever seen – and that includes a Czech version of Hamlet in which the Ghost of Hamlet’s father was a computer virus and Hamlet was on rollerblades.

Sugu Pillay claims in her Writer’s Note to have written this play “out of my need to understand the complex inter-racial tensions in Sri Lanka where my parents were born.” Given this starting point, an authentic and personal examination of the impact of the Sri Lankan conflict could be expected. Sadly, this is not the case – the play is highly derivative and frequently delves into melodramatic cliché. The play centres around Malini, a Tamil-New Zealander, recently returned from Sri Lanka for her sisters wedding and forced to confront her past – including her involvement with the Tamil Tigers after she is recognised by the priest brought from Sri Lanka to perform the wedding, in a moment that stretches credulity. The play tries to understand the myriad complex ways that people can get caught up in a conflict. On the way we are treated to a dose of Sri Lankan and Hindu myth, related by an overhead of the figure Ravana, and some laboured comparisons of racism in New Zealand, mostly voiced by the spurned Maori lover of Malini. The Writer’s Note also claims that this is the 19th draft of the script – somewhere along the line Pillay has lost sight of the central story in an effort to explicitly include so many additional aspects.

Ban Abdul is the highlight of the production as Malini. She brings a strong sense of vulnerability underneath her anger and rebelliousness, although there were continuity problems in regards to which parts of her body were meant to be injured. Unfortunately, she and the other actors are let down by some bizarre directorial choices by Tweddle. Often it seems that drama games have been used to establish power or space and they have been absentmindedly (or misguidedly) left in the final product. I felt like absurdist and avant garde techniques had been forced upon a script that called for emotional truthfulness – this was a similar failing I had felt when watching another production directed by Tweddle – Shoes. Moments of climatic drama, especially those involving the Priest (Tony Hopkins) produced giggles from the audience. The result was farcical – and I don’t think the play is in any way meant to be a farce. This, plus some overly drawn out scenes, never allowed the play to ‘build’ properly, or for much connection to be established.

Trimmed down to its essential plot and stripped of some of the more laboured points, Pillay’s script could still have some promise – there are moments when her unique approach to the investigation of her subject work well and she clearly has skill with language. However, a change of director and most of the cast would be desperately needed. I had the rare and unpleasant feeling when watching this production of not being able to wait until I could flee the theatre.