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50 shades of love

Paul Xuereb reviews the topical Jiena Nħobb, inti Tħobb.

Roderick Vassallo and Davide Tucci in Jiena Nħobb, inti Tħobb.

Roderick Vassallo and Davide Tucci in Jiena Nħobb, inti Tħobb.

Simon Bartolo’s newly-scripted play, Jiena Nħobb, inti Tħobb, is a play that is often funny but also very serious, focusing on love, with emphasis placed on gay people in contemporary Maltese society. In particular it looks at the problem being faced by same-sex couples who wish to adopt children.

Bartolo presents us with three groups of gay couples who seek a solution to the fact that current legislation does not permit adoption by same-sex couples.

Pierre Agius (Ray Calleja), a well-known musician, does not wish to adopt, unlike his live-in partner Greg (Victor Debono).

But, as a deeply-committed gay he has provided his friends Johnny (Edmond Vassallo) and Ian (Karl Cassar) with the services of two young women willing to act as surrogate mothers for the couple’s children.

Another couple, consisting of Pierre’s sister Lisa (Marilu Vella) and her partner Cynthia (Sharon Bezzina), has a problem. Lisa is reluctant to be outed. This dilemma leads her to re-examine her identity and to take a decision that brings the relationship to a crisis.

Two other characters are not concerned with adoption. One of them Ben (Roderick Vassallo) is a middle-aged, married man with two teenage children he adores and a wife he loves. However, he still feels the need to pay for sex with the only deeply dislikeable gay character in the play, the handsome young Devin (David Tucci).

When Ben decides to put an end to his visits, Devin gets his revenge in the vilest fashion. This secondary plot reaches a climax in a scene played strongly by Vassallo, Claire Agius as Ben’s wife Emily, and their children (Ruth Borg and Jamie Cardona). It is here that the play reaches one of its emotional climaxes, though I felt that the production’s able director, Sean Buhagiar, laid on the schmaltz too thickly.

The opponents to adoption by same-sex couples are depicted in a scene, purportedly from the discussion programme Xarabank. Here, the TV host (played by real-life presenter Peppi Azzopardi) tries to chair a discussion on this subject between Pierre and opponents of same-sex adoption.

The result is somewhat comic, unlike later in the play when Pierre confronts a demonstration of furious people and things turn ugly, leading to tragedy.

The play is structured in a series of scenes. Adrian Mamo’s neat set is flexible, making use of devices such as a small revolve for quick changes. He and Buhagiar have wisely opted to raise the orchestra pit to stage level for the TV and open-air scenes.

With his strong main characters, Buhagiar’s production is effective in bringing out the comical aspects of some scenes and characters, and makes the production move effortlessly from lightness to gravity.

With his strong main characters, Buhagiar’s production is effective in bringing out the comical aspects of some scenes

The production’s main weakness on the first night was the tendency of most members of the cast – Claire Agius being a great exception – to project their lines properly. This caused a good many words to be insufficiently comprehensible. Before the play began, an announcement was made that a member of the cast had a ailment that was greatly affecting his voice. Later, I learned from a good source that two other actors were similarly affected.

One of the few scenes complete-ly unaffected by poor audibility was the Xarabank scene, where everyone projected most satisfactorily.

Bartolo is most skilful in his writing and structuring of dialogue. In the longer scenes he weaves the various strands of the plot with mastery, and the lines are lively and tailored to the various characters. Most of the characters, even the minor ones, are given a third dimension. Both gays and heteros are depicted convincingly.

Devin is the most sexually active person in the play, but at least his love-making, with males as well as females, is never shown explicitly. Tucci manages to make Devin attractive to the audience, even when that same audience is judging him to be a bastard.

Calleja’s Pierre is clearly an intellectual who believes in gays presenting a bold front to society. It was a pity that Debono’s throat ailment made me miss quite a few of his lines. His portrait of a rather camp and fussy but courteous gay man was very well-judged and sometimes slightly pathetic.

Agius, a fine actress who has not been appearing much on the stage, provides a nuanced portrait of a housewife who has never been unfaithful but falls an easy victim to the handsome young Devin.

The big scene with Ben and the kids reminds us how powerful Agius has been in tragedy in the past.

Bezzina’s Cynthia is a woman rendered unhappy by her partner’s unwillingness to commit her-self entirely. Her outburst before breaking with Lisa is shocking in its emotional strength.

Vassallo brings out well the struggle between his true sexuality and his devotion to his family, and the young actors playing the children do very well for themselves though, like most of the adults, their vocal projection was at fault.

Jiena Nħobb, inti Tħobb will be staged again on May 23, 24 and 25. More details to be announced later.

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