Unlike many of the grand theatrical productions popular today, Thusita Jayasundera proves to audiences in her latest play, “My Eyes Went Dark,” just how little is needed to make a successful performance.
“Personally, my taste in theater is to be extremely spare,” the British-based, Sri Lankan-born actress says from a stool by the bar of the off-Broadway 59E59 theater, where the play is being put on as a part of the “Brits off Broadway” festival.
“We’ve got television, we’ve got film, we’ve got naturalism by the bucket load, and to my mind theatre is something slightly other, it’s not about presenting necessarily a completely complete picture.”
Jayasundera, 46, moved to London at 18 to attend RADA. Despite the ever-increasing pull of film and television, most of her work has stayed on the stage.
“My Eyes Went Dark” is written and directed by Matthew Wilkinson, who has previously had two plays (“Sun Is Shining” in 2002 and “Red Sea Fish” in 2009) at the annual Brits off Broadway festival. The work, which originally opened in London’s Finborough Theatre in 2015, is tended to The Forgiveness Project, a secular organization that explores alternatives to resentment and revenge as responses to crimes and personal suffering using real stories.
“It’s about people who undergo intense trauma — it’s about exploring how you inch to a place that is something like a completion when you’ve been shot open, when you’ve been destroyed, is it possible?” Jayasundera explains. “Forgiveness is something that everybody grapples with: everybody is either in the process of forgiving or not forgiving, asking forgiveness.”
The storyline requires one male and one female actor as cast, and two chairs and a slip of paper as props. Jayasundera is opposite Declan Conlon, who plays a man tortured by grief over the death of his wife and children in a tragic plane crash, who desperately searches for revenge on the man he holds responsible.
“The less you have, the more you invite the audience to embark on something much more imaginative,” Jayasundera says, “and that act of confidence on the part of the director, and the actors, means that the audience, too, rise to the occasion: they don’t expect to be spoon-fed the story. It becomes a collective endeavor as opposed to something as passive as: sit and watch and absorb.”
Jayasundera is tasked with the role of every other character — 11 total — in the play. She transitions from scene to scene into a new persona, swiftly altering her accent, mannerisms, personality and sometimes age — at one point she even plays a small child.
“You feel very anxious when you’re first starting on a job like this,” she admits. “It’s not been tried and tested, it hasn’t been put in front of an audience, so given that you don’t have any props, you don’t have any costume changes, you have nothing. That thing of ‘am I really going to be able to convince somebody? Are they really going to come along with me for the ride and know I’m being character number nine? I mean is it really going to happen?’ That is nerve-racking. But once it’s been proven to you that it works, that the story carries with you, people do follow it, then it sort of gets committed into your muscle memory like a dance.”