A lifetime in reviews

A lifetime in reviews

As he prepares to release an anthology of some of his most memorable reviews, renowned critic Paul Xuereb chats to Jo Caruana about his dedication to theatre and his favourite memories of it.

Curtain Up – Theatre in Malta (1963-2015) features Paul Xuereb’s most significant reviews.Curtain Up – Theatre in Malta (1963-2015) features Paul Xuereb’s most significant reviews.

Paul Xuereb is a name intrinsically linked to theatre in Malta – perhaps recently not for his on-stage performances or backstage antics, but for his well-written reviews, which have graced this newspaper for decades.

Xuereb explains that theatre has been a source of delight for his entire life. His first major influence in the area came from his headmaster, T. Cyril Parker, who he describes as a “jovial Englishman who was crazy about the theatre, and deeply enamoured of Shakespeare’s plays – a number of which he encouraged his pupils, myself included, to perform at what was then The Knights Hall (part of the great upper hall of what is now the Mediterranean Conference Centre)”.

In fact, it was Parker’s boundless enthusiasm and Xuereb’s exposure in performance to some of the greatest plays ever written, that made the theatre a lifelong passion for him early on. Then, as a student, Xuereb says he realised that most of the reviews that appeared in the Times of Malta and the Sunday Times of Malta at the time tended to be superficial, lavish in their praise and not very good at stating what was good or bad about the production. So, when he was approached by then-editor, the late George Sammut, Xuereb was pleased to start contributing himself.

“As a new reviewer in a tiny country I speedily found out the problems of writing about people – some of whom you know well or whose direction you may even have acted under yourself. I had decided I would not give up my beloved acting even after I started reviewing theatre, and only stopped acting in the mid-1980s. This, however, did not make things easier for me.”

Over the next 50 years, Xuereb contributed thousands of reviews to the Times and Sunday Times. Looking back, he now admits that he could be unreservedly critical for the first couple of decades, something he chose to tone down in later life. “One or two people I know have criticised my later reviews for this,” he says, adding that readers can choose to judge for themselves in his new book – Curtain Up – Theatre in Malta (1963-2015), which was edited by Xuereb’s good friend Marco Galea.

As a new reviewer in a tiny country I speedily found out the problems of writing about people

It is a project that has been a long time in the making, and one that the reviewer is thrilled to see come to fruition. But, I wonder, how on earth did he manage to dig through all those reviews to choose the ones he would include in the book?

“Well, for the most part, I chose reviews of plays by Maltese playwrights, and especially those that marked significant additions to the Maltese theatre scene,” he says.

This includes new plays by Alfred Sant and Joe Friggieri, revivals of plays like Ebejer’s Il-Ħadd Fuq il-Bejt in the 1990s, and works by previously little-known writers for the theatre like Clare Azzopardi, Simone Spiteri and Simon Bartolo. “I also tried to highlight the extraordinary contributions made by drama companies like Atturi, whose achievement has not been surpassed so far,” he continues.

And the list of important theat­rical moments goes on, with the inclusion of reviews mentioning early appearances from the likes Alan Montanaro, Monica Attard, Manuel Cauchi, Alan Paris and Isabel Warrington, as well as a few reviews of people like Johnnie Navarro. “His work is now largely forgotten, save for a few oldies like me. I reviewed him very early on in my career.”

Xuereb’s love of Shakespeare also comes across in the book, and he has included snippets from texts in English, Maltese and even Italian. Among them, he explains that his inclusion of a disastrous 1963 Maltese production of Hamlet was meant to illustrate the poverty of the Maltese teatrin productions of that period.

“Finally, I could not but include my review of Cheek by Jowl’s The Duchess of Malfi in 1996 – a first-rate production that scandalised some theatre-goers, the solo performances of outstanding actors like Franca Valeri, Michael MacLiammoir and Steven Berkoff, and a few of the fascinating Italian commedia dell’arte productions I was so fortunate to see,” he continues.

Looking back on his career, Xuereb says he has loved his work, and especially enjoyed being able to see so many of the productions on at any one time. “It was wonderful to see how theatre writing and production have developed, and to be have been able to give a boost to promising writers, directors and performers.”

Knowing that theatre reviews are not read if written indifferently, he always tried to write them in the most lucid and witty manner possible. “A good reviewer must be able to entertainingly convey his understanding of a script while enabling his readers to savour the actor’s performances. I do not dare ask my success rate in doing this but will say that I tried to do my best and that, especially in my later career, I tried to eschew being brutally frank,” he adds.

Paul Xuereb’s Curtain Up – Theatre in Malta (1963-2015) is published by Midsea Books.

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