A neglected Maltese playwright

A neglected Maltese playwright

Duncan Azzopardi (L-Iskrivan, left) and Carlos Farrugia (L-Astronomu).

Duncan Azzopardi (L-Iskrivan, left) and Carlos Farrugia (L-Astronomu).

I was glad to revisit Oreste Calleja’s Satira (MITP) which I first saw in the 1970s when it had just been written together with three other one-act plays (Anestesija, Ċens Perpetwu and Iġsma Iħirsa).

As the Beadle, Anthony Ellul found the best mean between Calleja’s satirical character and Marshall’s teatrin clown- Paul Xuereb

It remains an amusing and often perceptive satire on incompetence and indolence in bureaucracy, on indifference to scientific work and on the suspect justice administered by law courts, in this country.

It was written at a time when playwrights all over Europe wrote about the helplessness of the common man in the face of an indifferent state, and when left-wing terrorists were wreaking havoc with public order.

Written as a radio play, Satira soon transferred to the stage and it remains one of a handful of memorable plays by Calleja, an author whose full-length plays like Għasfur taċ-Ċomb have had less success, and one or two of which should be considered for revival by our national theatre which, I fear, is now stressing musical presentations much more than the production of works by Maltese authors.

Satira suits a studio performance such as this production directed by Albert Marshall, surely the busiest Maltese director of the moment.

This longish one-act play is what one might call a black farce as in it the exasperatingly pompous be­haviour and topsy-turvy logic of the government official in the labour office are followed by violence and death. In his programme note, Marshall rightly points out that absurdist drama was an influence on this play, but he seems to detect another important influence, that of Maltese popular theatre, or teatrin, of whose vitality he is quite enamoured.

As a result, in his direction, he has given less attention than I suspect Calleja might have desired to the sinister tones underlying the behaviour of L-Iskrivan (the government Clerk), of the Astronomer who ends up being a Bekkamort or Undertaker and even that of the malicious man queuing up for service by the Clerk.

In Marshall’s reading, these characters become pure figures of comedy, rousing the audience’s sniggers or guffaws, and little of the irritation with two of them, and indignation on behalf of their victim they are surely meant to produce.

The Astronomer has been waiting a week in order to apply for a temporary post in his speciality and is very indignant when he is told he has been assigned the post but has also lost it as he did not apply in time, and that someone else given the post has also lost it.

So angry is he that he even has physical confrontations with theClerk and with the Messenger/ Beadle in the office.

His anger becomes even more evident soon after his departure, when a terrorist bomb destroys the Palace of Justice nearby, and a gang of masked and armed people, one of them clearly the Astronomer, rush through the street, enter the office and kill the people they see, being the men queuing up, but not the Clerk and the Beadle who have concealed themselves.

After more mayhem, a man smartly dressed in a black suit comes in and applies for a job, and soon reveals himself to be the Astronomer.

Now, however, he is interested only in a job that will bring him a good income as there are dead people all over the place: that of undertaker, a job the Clerk assigns to him without delay. At the end, Astronomer and Beadle cart the bodies out of the office; they are the Astronomer’s first customers.

Just as Marshall makes the first part of the play more broadly comical than the author intended, and makes what I think were unneeded comical additions, some of them coarse, to Calleja’s dialogue, so he makes the violence indicated in the stage directions even greater than indicated.

He even has the Astronomer shoot dead the Author (played and once or twice overplayed by Clive Piscopo) who has introduced the play and is trying to provide a brief epilogue.

I am not sure why Marshall has made this addition, unless he is signifying that, as so often happens in contemporary stage direction, the author has to submit to the director.

I also noticed that while the script makes it clear that the Clerk escapes uninjured when he falls out of the window, Marshall’s acting script makes it equally clear that the man gets killed, I am not sure why. I have little doubt that in this production Marshall has gone right over the top.

Duncan Azzopardi’s Clerk is a hilarious mixture of egoism and bureaucratic incompetence, while his victim and eventual victor, the Astronomer, develops from the pitiful figure bullied in the early part of the play, to the somewhat formidable rebel who defies the Clerk, and lastly to the sinister figure who comes to collect his winnings in the last part of the play.

He was attired more as a dandy, however, than as an undertaker in professional black, and his bow-tie, described as black in the text, is actually maroon in this production.

As the Beadle, Anthony Ellul (the sole veteran in the company) sickeningly flattered the Clerk but enjoyed bullying the customers. He was the one who found the best mean between Calleja’s satirical character and Marshall’s teatrin clown.

Ryan Galea’s colourful set needed better finishing in places but was in tune with the production’s teatrin feeling. Marshall’s direction of the scenes of violence succeeded in rousing the audience from its relaxed enjoyment of the first part of the play.

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