Six Characters in search of an Author   
Noble Laureate Luigi Pirandello’s celebrated play in Tamil   
Directed by Israeli director Gil Alon 

A laudable attempt and an eye opener to theatre lovers in Chennai  
- Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, Chennai 

April 26, 2005 

Koothu-P-Pattarai, a well known Tamil repertory group of Chennai, celebrated the inauguration of its new center at Chinmaya Nagar, a suburb far away from the center of Cultural activities, with its latest production of “Six Characters in search of an Author” by Luigi Pirandello, translated into Tamil. The play was on from March 11 to March 20.  The duration of the play was two hours and ten minutes. 

There were certain surprising facts surrounding this play. It was a serious play even though there were many humorous elements. Chennai audience, which is noted for its preference for “humour and comedy” should have rightfully rejected this play. The center where it was held was literally back of boondocks. Yet, an average of one hundred to one hundred and fifty persons watched this play every day. The theatre and dance audience of Chennai are used to free performances. This performance was ticketed and the ticket cost was Rs.50/-. It was quite an effort to reach the place where the play was held. And yet, people came, a heterogeneous crowd consisting of young, middle-aged and old- men, women and children - sophisticated and urban, pitted against the simple, village folk, theatre actors and activists from Tamil and English theatres. In fact, it was a case of “all roads leading to Koothu-P-Pattarai” during those ten days. This was a miracle as far as Chennai is concerned. The audience going to the spot where the theatre group lived, rehearsed and acted. This was done at the insistence of Gil Alon, the director and the experiment succeeded in spite of all predictions and premonitions to the contrary. 

Technically also this was a play with a difference. There were hardly any sets and even the props were minimal. The costumes were non-existent. The actors came on stage in their every day costumes. They did have some light effects but not any startling or highly innovative ones. The space itself was changed thrice and every time the audience had to follow the group of actors. At times the characters sat amidst the audience and so the audience felt they were also a part of the performance. There was very little by way of background music or other such distracting elements. And yet, it was an absorbing play; on the two days that I saw the play no one among the audience left before the play was concluded. This again is something new in Chennai. However great the performance is, Chennai audience usually starts feeling restless by 8.30 pm and start moving out. At such times they never felt any qualms about hurting the sensitivity of the artists. So, how did all these people stay on till the clock struck nine even though they came from far away places? It is again a proof of what a good play with exceptionally good acting can do to the audience. Gil Alon proved that out of nothing one can create effective theatre. There is only element that has to be good in theatre – the acting capacity of the actors. The actors have to perform well and be together to bring out the essence of the play. Then the play would succeed. In other words, by giving the theatre back to the actors, Gil Alon managed to redeem the theatre from its inessentials and give it a new dignity. 

Coming to the play itself, there are two questions which crop up with this or any other play. The critics and media called this play “dated”. What do they mean by that word? That word is usually used when the relevance of the play has dwindled. In simpler words, a dated play can be considered relevant only at the time it was originally written and not after so many years have passed. Is that the case with Pirandello’s play? I feel that those who voiced this criticism could not see the layers within the play. In fact, they only had a linear approach to the narrative or the story line. They could not see beyond the obvious or the first level in the play. They were, in short, taking the tree to be the forest. Pirandello, in fact, was trying to hint at a great philosophical and metaphysical truth, which is true not only in the past and the present but the future too. And that truth is there for all sensitive people to see and understand. He is stating that the theatre with its “actors” can never completely comprehend or capture the truth of the life’s realities, which an author tries to capture through his “characters.”  The actors think of themselves as “real” and the characters as “unreal”. But, in this play, the characters assume a certain real life and are questioning this dictum. They challenge the actors and the director and prove to them that they can never enact the real life tragedy and comedy they, the characters represent. Again, it is also an observation about theatre actors who think that technique and training can elevate them to the status of taking on a character or a role. The author hints that instinct and real understanding of life are also essential to even imitate the characters. Gil and his actors have made a sincere attempt to go beyond the obvious and make the audience aware of these all-time true philosophical implications of theatre and the fact of being an actor. Gil personally feels that the actors have to go some more way for a fuller realization of this situation. 

The second factor that has to be considered in a play like this is how much is lost in the process of translation - from Italian to English and then to Tamil. We can never fully know the loss that has come about in translation. Gil told me that he and the actors were not happy with the translation to Tamil and they had to literally rewrite the whole thing. This probably could have been avoided. However, as viewers, we are bothered by the final translation only. To me, it was an adequate translation, which conveyed the essence. What it lost in literary merit was amply made up by the acting (body language as well as voices of the actors). So, as a theatre production it succeeded. The quality of it being a workshop production and not a performance production made the difference. It allowed for a greater participation by the audience and the raw quality and rough edges providing an earthy and natural quality rather than a chiseled and artificial quality. It had a life and breath of its own. 

When reviewing a play of these dimensions, the only factor which stands out is the quality of acting. It was the quality of acting, the total submission to the magic of acting that held the play together. It is not only the individual reaction of the actor to his chosen role that was evident but the feelings of the actors to each other as a community of actors. The training of the body and the voice was clearly evident. The credit for this goes to Na. Muthuswamy who has been exposing his actors for the last 17 years to all kinds of training.  But there was something else that elevated the actors of this play. They could easily forget the technicalities of acting and go into the emotional and spiritual levels of acting in a spontaneous way. In fact, often the audience wondered when the real acting started. They moved and spoke in a natural and unaffected manner that it was difficult to find out whether they were acting or living their roles. All the actors did justice to their roles, but three of them stood out for their excellent acting – Babu as the director, Jaya Rao as the father (one of the characters) and Aparna, the coquettish daughter (another character). The ability with which these actors could move from one emotion to another, from satire to seriousness, sadness to anger, flirtation to contempt was amazing. Aparna has been critisiced for overacting. But, I feel that the character demanded it and she was just following the demands of the character. In fact, contrary to normal expectations, the actors were normal while the characters seemed melodramatic. Again, is Pirandello questioning the norms of theatre, which in its anxiety to avoid melodrama is missing the intense poignancy of real life? 

In reviews we always talk about actors, lights, music, technical support and even the plot of the play. We do, at times talk about how great a director was to have produced such a play. But, in the case of Pirandello’s play in Tamil, one can unhesitatingly say, it is Gil Alon, the director who made the difference. True, Koothu-P-Pattarai is a well known theatre group with trained actors. But, they could not have brought out the subtleties of this play without the help and support of the director. The director has an original concept with regard to this oft-acted play. But, it is his firm belief that the actor should not be separated from his space, the space where he lives, works and creates plays that worked the magic. They could easily have hired a hall in the city and held the performances there. But, they did not. Instead, they gave energy to the space where they lived and practiced theatre and in turn derived energy from that space. It is also Gil’s faith in this group of actors and the humane and friendly treatment of them that brought out the best in them.  

Gil with his experience with international theatre knows that an actor needs not only training and instinct but encouragement and support. When a group of actors meet with an exceptional director with great humaneness, the result would be an unusual and great play. Koothu-P-Pattarai has proved it beyond doubt. Three cheers to Koothu-P-Pattarai and Gil Alon. 

Vasanti Sankaranarayanan, is a PhD holder from Madras University on the subject “Malayalam Cinema, Society and Politics of Kerala”. She has translated books from Malayalam to English and vice versa and has written some dance scripts. She is a freelance journalist and art critic.