Tom Alter becomes Wilfred Bion in a new play
Thirty years after an unfinished film, veteran actor Tom Alter is bringing back the life of late psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion back to stage
Tom Alter is no stranger to the one-man stage act. For 15 years, he’s been doing one about Maulana Azad, scripted and directed by Sayeed Alam, and one based on Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea. The former was written for the stage, the latter adapted from a book. What he’s attempting now, however, is quite a challenge.
Sitting in one corner of a small room at the India International Centre in Delhi, the 66-year-old actor is wrapping up interviews before he goes back to learning the lines of The Becoming Room, a play in three acts. “This is a really challenging script,” he says, “but one does love a challenge.”
The script is one of two spin-offs of an eponymous unfinished cinematic experiment from 1983, which tried to dramatize India-born psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion’s semi-autobiographical work of fiction, A Memoir Of The Future. The second spin-off, written for actor Alaknanda Samarth, is the entire film script rendered in the form of a narrative poem. Both are written by Meg Harris Williams, one of the two original scriptwriters of the now abandoned film project.
Both Alter and Samarth were cast in that film (put together recently in a 40-odd-minute clipping that can be found on YouTube) alongside prominent English actors like Nigel Hawthorne (Yes Minister, 1980-88) and Carol Drinkwater (All Creatures Great And Small, 1978-90). Alter had played Bion’s father, and Samarth plays Bion’s ayah (nanny), both of whom had a strong influence on the psychoanalyst. The film project, initiated by the late Udayan Patel, a Mumbai-based psychoanalyst, and film director Kumar Shahani was abandoned 34 years ago, but sometime in 2015, people from the team contacted Alter again, asking if he would like to do a play.
“The film has always been close to my heart, and I’ve always had a great regret that it never got completed. And then, suddenly this (came along)…so it’s very exciting for me,” says Alter, recalling how he finally started working with the script about six months ago. He even performed one-third of this script in Mumbai in March.
While Bion’s book is an amalgam of fiction, psychoanalysis and autobiography, its subsequent film adaptation was interpreted as a series of dreams, using the visual medium to explore psychoanalytic concepts through an autobiographical narrative. Now, when Alter performs the roles of both Bion and his father in The Becoming Room, select visuals from the film will play on a screen behind the actor. When Bion’s conversations with himself ponder upon his own birth, through Alter’s monologues, corresponding visuals from the film will play at the back. “There will also be photographs of World War I, of India, of the ayah.... There will be a constant stream of—I wouldn’t say consciousness—but sub-consciousness, that will be on while the play is going on,” says Alter. “So the screen is like a dream.”
Bion died in 1979, while the film was being shot. Alter recalls that there were plans for the psychoanalyst to visit the film sets before he died, aged 81, in England. Calling Bion’s “a most amazing life” spanning two world wars, the actor talks at length about the psychoanalyst serving in the first war as a tank commander. “To realize what we are in 2017, it is important to know what happened a hundred years ago,” says Alter. “This is one of the great minds of the 20th century, talking about the 20th century. There’s a lot of things which all of us should be interested in.”
The Becoming Room will be staged on 27 May, 6.30pm, at the India International Centre, 40, Max Mueller Marg, New Delhi.