Who needs a new theatre?
This has been the week of personalities. Forget policies and electoral manifestos and such yawns, what really matters now is the way in which a number of key characters, some of whom seem to have walked straight out of a forged Shakespeare, have positioned themselves and their claimed or real allies. From now on Maltese politics is down to Facebook-style likes, unlikes, and what gets posted in between.
One man in particular struck me as being a cut above the rest. John Aquilina was found guilty of having relieved a score of people of their (front-) garden decorations.
Not quite a hanging offence I suppose, and readers will please dispel all notions of a gnome fetish. This is Malta and we prefer lions to little men in silly hats. Still, a cat’s a cat and Aquilina now has nine months in a cell to gestate on which part of the gypsum could have been better handled.
The juicy bits of the story took place in the courtroom however. The Times told us that Aquilina “sports a tear-drop tattoo just below his right eye”. He lives in a punning place called Dar il-Ħares, Min ma Jogħġbux ma Jħarisx (impossible to translate, sorry). His mobile phone too has a mind of its own and rang during proceedings. Or rather it made the sound of a cock crowing, “causing lawyers and policemen to chuckle”. One might be tempted to put the bio finery down to silly-season reporting, but I don’t think so. I’d rather prefer to think of the whole thing as a piece of first-class theatre to which the press provides, first, a narratively-altered visibility and, second, a running commentary.
Let’s start with the more tangible exhibits. With its grand columns and pediment, the law courts building could easily be a theatre straight out of 19th century fantasy. I think of it as a Phoenix to Barry’s own folly.
The Rjal perished in the flames only to be reborn some years later a couple of hundred yards down the road. Left to their devices (and wouldn’t it be nice to be left alone to make up our own stories?) most tourists would probably imagine what’s left of the Rjal as a classical ruin and the law courts as a theatre.
Like all good theatre, the action spills out onto the street. One of the best places to study people in Malta is the little stretch between il-Qorti and Queen’s Square. It is perhaps significant that the space is book-ended by Sciortino’s optimistic monument to the national virility on the one hand and a stern-looking piece of colonial matriarchy on the other.
It’s also the section of Republic Street which has changed the least in recent decades. The shops I knew as a child are still there, altered a wee bit if at all by the most procedural of nods to renovation. But that, I suppose, is coincidence. The real stars of this ongoing street performance are the people.
It would be simple if it were just a matter of politics and the law coming together, often in the same people. What makes it rather more colourful is that the politicians-lawyers follow up their epic legal battles over a coffee and a whispering session with their clients.
That bit of street brings together two types. First, the layabouts and rumour-mongers of Great Siege Square (“ikun quddiem il-Qorti” – “he hangs out outside the law courts” – is not necessarily a flattering thing to say about a man); second, the rather differently-positioned patrons of the cafes on Queen’s Square, itself part of a triangle involving Parliament and the Casino Maltese. It is precisely that convergence which makes it such a convincing portrait of the faultlines and collisions of Maltese society.
I’ve often thought that the surest litmus of an urban public space is the ease with which rumours travel to and from it. I also know that if I wanted to start a rumour I’d head to that piece of ground. One of the reasons why I wish to live long is to see what Renzo Piano’s designs will do to that. If in say 20 years’ time the rumours will have moved towards the ruins, we will know we’re on to something.
We certainly are with Aquilina. The quirky nicknames and tattoos and unruly cocks serve to narrate the part of a man on the wrong side of the law. One is left to conjure up images of the opposite, the magistrate and lawyers and officers in their own studied parts and sartorial and linguistic oddity. I think it’s telling that well-known criminal (so to speak) lawyers tend themselves to be rather colourful individuals. It’s rather like a painting which seems a cacophony prima facie but turns out on closer inspection to be a carefully-balanced composition.
It might seem that power is very much on the side of the people in black. It is, after all, the type of power invested by the state and therefore presumably fairly bomb-proof.
Or maybe not. Consciously or not, what the Aquilina characters do is effectively subvert that power. They somehow manage to walk the fine line between allowable irreverence and contempt of court. The first gets you an all-round chuckle, the second a fine and possibly worse.
I love to watch people walk down Republic Street en route to il-Qorti. You can immediately tell which part they intend to cast themselves in. The really irreverent types wear ill-fitting, roll-up sleeve jackets. Their ties are done but not quite. They walk with a swagger and hold crumpled bits of paper known solemnly to the rest as ‘summons’.
Not to be confused with misguided sprezzatura, it’s really just short – or not even that – of holding up two fingers to the system. Which on its part does fight back somewhat. It does so by installing body scanners, for example, and by blocking visibility to the stage. The most desirable of sightlines, the ones that would really get the loafers’ tongues wagging, are these days blocked by using the rear entrance and tinted windows.
Bomb scares are the proverbial cherry. I can’t help thinking, every time I see the crowds outside the law courts, that they are the ultimate form of irreverence, the non-event that really messes everything up.
It’s hard to tell who’s who in the hubbub. The judges, lawyers, people with tear-drop tattoos and layabouts all end up on Great Siege Square. A shame Aquilina won’t be around to sign autographs.