ESSAY: Mute Stage by Simone Spiteri

Mute Stage
Copyright Gilbert Calleja

There is a preference exhibited by humanity, both at the individual and societal level, to escape rather than confront itself, and to lull itself into a superficial sense of peace and happiness that comes at a price. It comes at the expense of dreams – if dreams can be taken to mean ambition, hope and self-development – for the sake of a false sense of security or self-assuredness.

For the sake of my argument, I would like to appeal to the reader’s familiarity with that sensation of having noticed something along one’s peripheral vision that disappears when it is brought into one’s direct line of vision. I would, therefore, like to use this visual metaphor to illustrate the feeling that a certain, critical aspect in theatre often disappears or is ‘lost’ in mainstream work, to be glimpsed only briefly in those theatres that are considered fringe or peripheral.

A rough definition of peripheral theatre is that which does not make it into the central public arena of discussion, either because it is not financially successful, does not achieve popular acclaim or assumes a position that automatically places it on the outskirts of convention. Malta’s theatre scene is a strange beast inasmuch as it is hard for there to be any definitive mainstream-peripheral distinction. This could be due to its small size and therefore its lack of any notable variations in profit and audience-drawing power, but I would posit it is also due to the nature and content of the pieces being produced.

The fact of the matter is that it has become de rigeur for local theatre companies to simply buy the rights of, and produce, a successful London or Broadway production. As a consequence, while the standards and quality may, to some extent, have been made to develop in relation to the international community, any local relevance in the work has not.

Therefore, if peripheral theatre could be said to provide a counter-weight to the commercial success of the mainstream, thereby instigating some form of dialogue, then Malta does not have a periphery in terms of theatre, and does not have an ongoing dialogue.

The tendency to import foreign work has spelt trouble for works written by local playwrights. New, original, and locally relevant writing has become a rare species, playwrights themselves a dying breed and a lot of the new written work has provided very little ground for discussion. Companies seem reluctant to invest in work written by local playwrights in favour of works which can at least bank on the attention they would generate in the run up to their opening due to their previous success elsewhere. In fact one may even suggest that the definition of a ‘playwright’ has changed.

The stigma that theatre in Maltese is associated with undisciplined and haphazardly produced farces intent on amassing cheap laughs still reigns and has consequently damaged work in the mother tongue. As a result, audiences flock to watch plays which have proven popular in other countries but resonate very little with local realities.

Why are theatre makers opting for ready-made theatre packages that have worked elsewhere? Are these choices serving to anaesthetise an audience that would otherwise be inclined to self-criticism or is it the audience itself that dictates what choices are made in the first place? Are we escaping from turning the lens onto ourselves because we are afraid of what we might discover, or are we just not bothered because being comfortably numb is so much more convenient?

One thing’s for certain, and that is that Malta, already distinguished by a colourful history, has not been short of important socio-political issues to be addressed by the local theatre community. Problems like xenophobia, corruption and religious fundamentalism are matters that continue to blight the islands, the latter being exemplified in the overtly pious referendum fever that gripped the Maltese people for the better part of the year 2011, during which holier-than-thou Parliamentary representatives shared pearls of anti-secular and intellectually offensive wisdom with the media on an almost daily basis.

Which is to say nothing of that most obvious and suffocating opponent to dialogue: censorship. For the past two years a team of local theatre practitioners has been trying, unsuccessfully, to overturn a banning order on Anthony Nielsen’s Stitching, which the court viewed as ‘exalting perversion as if it was acceptable behaviour’ (The Times of Malta 28th June 2008). The same fate befell Alex Vella Gera, the author charged with distribution of pornographic material and offending public morals through his short story Li Tkisser Sewwi. The case’s acquittal was immediately appealed by the Attorney General on the premise that “God [is] above everything and everyone” (The Times of Malta, 31st March 2011).

This is not to say, of course, that we should only be turning to new work in an attempt to draw attention to serious social ills and attempt to agitate for change. I was lucky enough to watch a modern rendition of Aristophane’s Lysistrata in the Greek Theatre of Epidavrus by the Greek National Theatre in 2010. The clear references made by the production to the economic disaster raging in nearby militant Athens and across the country were not lost on the 10,000 strong audiences and some of the most tense moments of the play had spectators standing up in the amphitheatre and commenting loudly in response to the action on stage. Does theatre need to speak about national problems only and does it need to generate such a strong reaction every time? Of course not. But it should at least make viewers sit up in their seat and listen, and maybe go home and disagree, concur... think. Is it safe to say that local audiences will respond to work that speaks their language and references their local baggage? I would venture to say that yes it would, if the few instances of local socially-relevant theatre works in recent years are taken into account.

Indeed thousands of people flocked to the Manoel Theatre recently to watch Mario Philip Azzopardi’s Xbihat ta’ Wħud li huma Kattoliċi (Images of some who are Catholics) in 2011, a piece which, notwithstanding the various flaws at production level, as well as at the level of historical detail, generated a buzz amongst Maltese theatre goers because it spoke about the 1961 interdict imposed by Archbishop Gonzi on prospective Labourite voters, a social wound that most audience members still remember or carry around since family members fell victims to it. Clare Azzopardi’s L-Interdett taħt is-sodda, a play based on the same theme produced five years earlier, had also garnered praise by reviewers who hailed it as a piece that ‘forces us to stop, take attention and think’ (Paul Xuereb, The Sunday Times of Malta 12th November 2006).

If the interest and reviewers’ enthusiasm generated by these productions is any indication of the direction local theatre should be taking, then theatre makers have a duty to be seeking out those theatrical elements which resonate with their local audience. If the quest for that relevant subject matter leads us to that which we “cannot put our finger on” and which we often simply refer to as peripheral theatre, then it is this periphery we should be looking to formulate and expand on, rather than that comfortably numb centre which we currently inhabit.

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