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The many colours of Maltese theatre

Mario Azzopardi (ed.): M’hemmx Bżonn Siparju. Malta Drama Centre. 242pp.

This is not an easy book to cover, with no less than 17 Maltese theatre devotees and practitioners voicing their views on this popular, sometimes highly charged, cultural scene.

The contributors include actors, playwrights, directors, critics, historians, and even chapters culled from theatre-centred, university theses – which all adds up to a series of perspectives on the scope and function of local contemporary theatre.

The Drama Centre’s latest publication – again the brainchild of and under the editorship of Mario Azzopardi – is an excellent follow-up to It-Teatrin, which discussed local theatre’s not so distant roots. The title, M’Hemmx Bżonn Siparju (No Curtain Needed), refers to the fact that contemporary drama no longer depends on traditional theatre houses with their grand curtain focal to most of the business on stage.

Creative freedom is the crux to constant development in the practice of any art form

Drama nowadays has moved out into smaller theatres and open-air centres, and has taken on styles and forms that were anathema up to two or three decades ago. It has lived down rigid rules and practices and is freer and more energetic. One must be careful not to gloss on contemporary merits, but it is a fact that creative freedom is the crux to constant development in any art form.

Change has never come smoothly in our island home, especially when the change presupposes a revision in our outlook on overblown topics like politics and censorship, an area that has lingered too long within a religious parameter. Protection of the young and immature is a necessity, but so is freedom of expression and the rights of adult viewers.

It is now widely held that in all creative fields, rather than censorship, classification and its observance is the way forward. The banning and/or trimming of the more ‘lively’ adult fare is rather a drag-on from medieval times. Chris Gruppetta, whose doctoral thesis and publishing house make him an ideal contributor on this debate, calls for prudence and “auto-regulation in the creative industries”. The idea has found an echo in government’s recent proposals for an amendment to the law on censorship; one hopes for its full implementation soon.

Trevor Zahra’s argument centres around theatre adaptations of well-known literary works and the difficulties in such crossovers. On the same wavelength, Charles Briffa discusses the basic differences between writing for theatre and writing a novel or short story, and how these elements sometimes interplay.

The same theme is briefly taken up by Oliver Friggieri in his essay Mit-Teatrin sat-Telesensiela, before opening his vista onto modern popular genres like the teleseries and talk shows. He concludes that “in the Mediterranean, in which Malta sits centrally, teatrin and classical theatre somehow converge”.

Albert Marshall questions the rising number of people who have registered for courses at drama schools in recent times, and asks whether theirs is true dedication to the art or mere vainglory, what with the present explosion of the teleseries genre. He finds this “cacophany” of teleseries productions generally of poor artistic quality, often “low culture”.

Joe Friggieri describes the theatre as “a bridge between logical analysis and the imagination, and a means to show the use and value of both”.

This book has quite a number of quotable one-liners. Also, its total input quite reconstructs the chequered history of local theatre, with such articles as Marco Galea’s observations on the growth of the pantomime in Malta, ironically a post-colonial import that has now shed its Britishness so that we can speak of our very own Maltese pantomime, with political satire one of its more popular ingredients.

A surprise cameo is the late Frans Sammut’s short introduction to a projected translation of Tchekov’s Djadja Vanja which he left unfinished. Ylenia Carabott gives a detailed account of the setting up of the Drama Centre, while Mark Spiteri Lucas offers a historical background to the development of political theatre in Malta.

Mario Azzopardi, the project’s prime mover, analyses community theatre and stresses that there must be a loosening of the distance bet­ween the dramatist and the public for this to succeed, a belief at the heart of his Brechtian approach to productions, including the 1980s setting up of the Politeatru group.

Paul Xuereb, our longest-serving theatre critic who has seen all this changing scenario, gives an over­view of how the theatre in Malta has impacted so far in the third millennium. En route he touches on the complexity of the censorship problem and the proliferation of small youthful groups whose search for the intimate and the experimental is blazing new trails in the local scene.

An interesting item was the mention of Oreste Calleja, whose last play Pawlu Redux can be interpreted as a bitter farewell to his art, and his homeland, obliquely citing lack of proper patronage and appreciation. A rather sad loss, but I will never forget the impetus he gave our theatre following the 1960s revolution of Francis Ebejer, who is still our greatest playwight even if his plays are very rarely performed. Like Calleja, what many of our creative writers find galling is their inability to really break through to a home audience sold on cheap political intrigues and popular culture. But that is a tale for a cold wintry evening.

In these ‘curtainless’ times, contemporary Maltese theatre has bred a number of breakaway companies whose worth belie their small scale. Though often short-lived they have introduced new elements and have infused in our theatre a generous amount of energy. The best groups are rather well documented here.

Thus, Lorann Vella describes the sharp rise of the Aleatea group she and Simon Bartolo set up together before they decided to concentrate on writing young adult literature, which has quite electrified the latter scene. Immanuel Mifsud writes about Teatru Marta Kwitt, with its emphasis on body movement as the players’ sole instrument of communication, and Giuseppe Schembri Bona­ci, on his radical Teatru Strada Stretta, with all its complicated inter-disciplinary net creating a holistic experience. Both groups had their unique style and philosophy of doing theatre, as had also Mario Vella’s short-lived Henri Dogg.

To these must be added the groups known as Teatru tat-Triq and Tan-Numri which, as Peppi Azzopardi attests in his contribution Agitation and Transformation, had a rather rough time, what with the group’s anti-establishment experiences in street theatre during the political cauldron that was Malta in the 1980s.

What may be missing here is an overdue analysis of the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju’s Xsenuru series at the MITP during their 1960s heyday, in which Alfred Sant was also a protagonist, and a deeper look at John Schranz’s experimental, at times idiosyncratic, dramaturgy.

But then a complete history of contemporary theatre in Malta cannot be contained in a mere 242 pages. This book has done a great job in reaching out for it.

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