More than collateral damage

Author Immanuel Mifsud speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about penning the play Faith Hope u Charity, a commission for Stagun Teatru Malti, and moving out of his comfort zone to work within the milieu of a commercial theatre production

Immanuel Mifsud: “STM is a commercial operation, and playwrights who are touchy should forget about working for them”
Immanuel Mifsud: “STM is a commercial operation, and playwrights who are touchy should forget about working for them”

How did your collaboration with Stagun Teatru malti come about, and how did you arrive at Faith, Hope u Charity as your subject for the play?

Working with, or rather working for Stagun Teatru Malti (STM) is a different experience from working with other theatre companies. STM is basically a commercial venture that provides theatre performances to audiences with a particular characteristic of presenting plays in Maltese and related to Malta and her history and politics. Similar to what happens in other artistic ventures their writers are hired to come up with a product they are paying money for. The writer is, in other words, writing for the company rather than for himself. 

I was approached by STM some two years ago to work on an adaptation of Monsarrat’s The Kappillan of Malta. Bascially STM bought the rights from Monsarrat’s publishers, and I worked on a stage version in Maltese. As it happened, last year’s Il-Kappillan ta’ Malta was a success and I learned that for the last two performances people had to be turned away. So the producers realised, or maybe confirmed, that WWII is a very interesting subject also because, save for some memoires and novels written mostly by foreign authors, there is only a slight volume of work on it.

That’s when Faith, Hope u Charity was conceived as a possible subject for this year’s STM’s summer production. So, neither the idea nor the storyline are mine: I worked on (or around) the producers’ storyline and created the play.

The core of the play appears to be a love triangle set in the middle of World War II. Given that such a set-up has often been exploited for melodrama, what attracted you to it, and which themes do you hope to bring out? 

As I pointed out in the previous answer the idea of a love triangle during the worst moments of the siege was not mine. The producers believe the subject will pull crowds, and I have no doubt about that. But of course, on accepting to take the assignment I also wanted to make sure there is some Mifsud effect in it.

So rather than a soppy romantic story the play will, perhaps, give more space to the politics behind the war and also aims at tackling various myths about the war and, moreover, about the British rule. To start with the very story of the planes Faith, Hope and Charity, though documented, has still a number of loose ends: there were eighteen planes just before the War broke but only four were left on the island.

The Gladiator plane was not best plane to fly during WWII but it was the only type made available for Malta’s defence for that time. And how good or bad were the relations between the British rulers and the native citizens? I’d also like to think that the romance in the play is more reminiscent of the great novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez rather than the lovey-dovey type of thing.

This isn’t the first time that the war has featured in your fiction, even if your novella Fl-Isem tal-Missier (u tal-Iben) explores it far more intimately and impressionistically. Are there recurring aspects of the war that interest you, and do you return to them with this play?

As you’re saying my novella and this play are quite different from eachother, both as to genre and philosophy maybe. But WWII, as a subject, continues to haunt me: it was such a major event, devastating in many respects and, at least according to some historians, had also an enormous social impact.

I keep thinking about Maltese authors and their choice of subjects. One of the few Maltese novels about the war is Vic Apap’s L-Ulied tal-Azzar. If my memory serves me right it was published in the seventies, that’s forty long years after the war. Then there was Ebejer’s Requiem for a Malta Fascist, 1980 and subsequently Lina Brockdorff’s work. So little, and so long after the event itself.

Why? I find this very very curious. In a way I got interested in WWII knowing my father was a decorated war veteran who used to spend hours on end recounting wartime experiences. He esteemed the British but some experiences he used to relate – his own of course – did not convey a fair portrait of the British rulers, and I always wanted to put that forth without, however, addressing the issue with the sort of loud patriotism which I was very exposed to when I was young. The scope is not to express anti-British sentiments, rather to do away with myth and see things differently from what other saw them before.

What kind of contribution would you say Stagun Teatru Malti offer to local writers? Would you say we need more such initiatives?

STM has a professional set up. As such they assign a job to you and you carry it through. Working in such a set up is totally different from what local playwrights might have been used to do before. It’s not a question of playwright says all and has the last word on everything.

To start with, playwrights, normally, work or collaborate with a theatre group: their work is shared with the actors and directors who give feedback to the authors and then they go back to their wordprocessors and make the necessary changes to the script. All playwrights work like that: Shakespeare had his own company as did Strindberg and Pinter and co. So what you will see on the night is, perhaps, the fourth version of the script that I worked after lengthy meetings with producers and the production team.

It’s very challenging to try to meet the demands of the producers (who of course make their own calculations and requirements), the director and also the actors while, at the same time, respecting your authorial persona. So authors who are ready to work within such a set up should go for it, I think. On the other hand playwrights who are extremely touchy about their work that they won’t even let an actor change a comma – they should better forget it.

Being both a writer of fiction, poet and now a playwright, how would you describe the local literary and theatrical scenes? What would you change about them?

I keep thinking that the literary scene is heading towards interesting times. As for theatre, well, I worked for years in what was considered to be the alternative, experimental scene, which had contrasting ethos and aesthetics to this mainstream theatre. While a couple of mainstream theatre companies are working at putting the foreign as close as possible (sadly not the contrary), the alternative scene, the theatre of the periphery is extremely silent, dormant if not altogether absent.

Even though certain circumstances have forced me to distance myself from the periphery I still long for it and still hold on to my theory that the mainstream will suffer if the periphery is poor or nonexistent. As for local television drama productions... well, I really dislike being very open about what I think of it: basically many of the stuff has horrible scripting, appalling production and editing and horrendous acting. There: I told you what I didn’t really want to say.

What’s next for you?

I never decide to concentrate on one thing because I may get very easily bored. I have a complete poetry collection and I’m waiting to find some time to go over the manuscript again and do some necessary revisions. I’m also translating a couple of plays for a local producer and have some other commissioned work. But on top of this I’m working on my next novel which is inspired by a true series of (local) events; it’s not WW2 and just in case you’re already wondering, it’s not set in the 80s.

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