A life on the stage

She may have been a tiny mite of a woman, but Suna Pekuysal was a giant name. In the wake of a life filled with plays and prizes, she made her final journey as she always wanted, to a standing ovation.

Born Suna Belener in Istanbul on 24 October 1933, Suna Pekuysal took her first steps on life's stage as a student in the Voice and Ballet Department of Istanbul's Municipal Conservatory. Making her debut in Kadri Ögelman's play, 'Artist Aranıyor',  in the children's section of the Istanbul City Theater in 1949, Pekuysal transfered three years later into the drama department. In 1964 she married journalist Ergun Köknar and their son, Sait Ali Köknar, was born in 1973. Pekuysal, who worked in the City Theaters for 54 years, retired on 24 October 1998. But retirement did not suit a woman who had devoted her life to the theater; as she said, “Actors never retire. I want to die on stage.” The artist, who acted in more than 250 theater plays during her lifetime, also played in close to a hundred films.

Pekuysal played opposite Zihni Göktay for fourteen years in a musical titled, 'Lüküs Hayat' (The Luxury Life), written in 1933 by Ekrem Reşit Rey and staged in 1984 by Haldun Dormen at the Istanbul City Theater. Lüküs Hayat was an operetta. Staged by several different groups, the play was also turned into a film by Ömer Lütfi Akad in 1950. Regarded as a major piece in the cultural jigsaw puzzle of the Turkish Republic and staged continuously from 1984, Lüküs Hayat earned the acclaim of a wide audience by portraying the confrontation between Turkish culture and
the West in its often risible manifestations.

Up to the neck in theater till her dying breath Pekuysal's friends and colleagues of course had much to say about the artist who bid farewell on 23 July following a life enriched by dozens of plays and prizes. But there is a common thread running through all of them, namely, that Suna Pekuysal was a woman with a love of life and a perennial smile on her face.

The dialogue between her and Savaş Ay, who interviewed her for the last time when he visited her in hospital where she was being treated following an accident in her home, sums up Suna Pekuysal to a T: Upon being asked how Ergun Köknar managed to catch such a beautiful and brilliant girl, she snapped back, “It wasn't easy!” She then went on: “I am never content with what the director tells me. I try to go deeper into the character, on my own. That's my style. Once I had a part in which I had to speak in dialect. I told my co-star Ergun, 'We're both playing characters from the same part of Turkey. If we don't capture the local dialect we'll make fools of ourselves. Will you train me?' He was surprised but very pleased. He realized there was somebody in the theater who took the work seriously and really wanted to learn, and that made him happy. Later the play was staged.

One day he stopped the action right in the middle of his lines, took a look around him and said in a loud voice, 'Hey, you people! I want all of you to be my witness that I'm going to get this girl in no time flat, so help me God!' Everyone froze in place. Even me, I was shocked,” says Pekuysal, adding, “So did fate decree it. That great, huge man was so sensitive, so full of life, such a wonderful person... my mind, my heart and my love are with him still.”

Haldun Dormen, the director of 'Lüküs Hayat', thought Suna Pekuysal had an incredible acting talent. “It's extraordinary that a woman of her physical type and physique could take the stage and produce such a miracle. As I've said, I've seen thousands of plays all over the world, and I've never seen anything like her. I repeat, she was a great actress, not just in the Turkish context but on a world scale.”
Film and theater actor Göksel Arsoy, who had a splendid friendship with Pekuysal going back 45 years, expresses his feelings like this: “She was the life of the set.

A person with a pure heart and respect for herself, the other person and society in general. I never once heard her say a nasty or hurtful thing to anybody. This is a major kind of perfection.” Emphasizing that Suna Pekuysal's contributions to Turkish cinema will never be forgotten, Arsoy went on, “People like Suna are the ones in our films who are enthroned in the eyes of the people.”

Actor Şemsi İnkaya points out that it is very difficult for an actor in Turkey to command the same level of respect throughout a lifetime career, adding, “Suna succeeded very well in this, right up to the end. I hope that our young colleagues have learned something from her, because our profession is a matter of discipline, of respect. Young people need to learn this, and Suna was the perfect example. If only she had stayed on the stage longer.”

“Not one of us can never capture her comedy spirit, her energy or her pace,” says Hümeyra with a smile. “I hope stars will fall on the place where she lies. We last performed together on the European side. She played a fortune-teller. From the minute she came on stage until she left her energy never faltered. We all bowed in reverence before her.  Whenever I think of her I want to smile.” Zihni Göktay, who played opposite Pekuysal for fourteen years in the operetta, Lüküs Hayat, and was close friends with her both on stage and off, has this to say: “Actresses like Suna Pekuysal, Adile Naşit and Bedia Muhavvit come along only rarely. This country rarely produces actresses at all. When I say 'actress', I mean real actresses. There is no shortage of those who call themselves actresses. That's why it's essential that we protect and look out for the real ones, both as a society and as a state.”

As we bid farewell to Suna Pekuysal, we leave the last word to her son, Sait Ali Köknar, for whom his mother's lively stage presence is unforgettable. 'Her roles are part of me,” he says, adding: “My mother gave me a calm and orderly upbringing. You see me at this moment as Suna Pekuysal's only son, but I am not just one person. I multiplied with every play I saw, and I became free. I understood what life in the theater is, and I was liberated. My mother taught me what I can do as a person - my limitations, my horizons. For that reason the theater, fiction, literature, culture, cinema are not merely a spice that adds variety to life but a necessity. A ticket to freedom in this cramped and crowded world. She gave me my freedom through her performances. I stand before you not as the son of Suna Pekuysal and Ergun Köknar but as one who has grown up with culture and literature. She gave me not one life but many. And not just me but everybody. Long live theater. Long live Suna Pekuysal!”

Farewell, Suna Pekuysal. Farewell, Big Sister...