Remembering the revolt | Alfred Buttigieg

In what amounts to a coup for Maltese theatre-lovers at home and away, veteran playwright, Alfred Buttigieg – most notable for the controversial The Priests’ Revolt – has just published a volume of his four major works, translated in English

Alfred Buttiegieg
Alfred Buttiegieg

First of all, how does it feel to have your complete works not only collected in one volume, but also translated into English? And how do the plays look and feel to you as a “whole” now that you have the luxury to see them all collected “in one place”?

A few people who follow my work as well as the odd theatre-goer had approached me in the past to have my plays translated into English. They would argue that it would make my work accessible to countries where English is widely spoken. They would point out it was a pity that a foreign director would be unable to work on a play of mine because of the language barrier. There are also many Maltese people who might prefer to read in English. I finally realised there was some sense in what they were telling me. Hopefully these translations will increase awareness of my plays, overcoming both the insularity imposed by the small number of Maltese readers as well as the cultural limitations endemic to the Maltese theatre scene.

It’s a pity that some of the most mediocre Maltese plays in recent years have been the ones which got the most funding

By the way, they’re not my complete works but only a collection of my four full-length plays, three of which were written in the past 10 years. I didn’t include my one-act plays which were staged in the 80s, my prose works as well as other unpublished and unstaged plays.

On that note, are there any particular memories attached to particular plays that “stick out” more than others? One would of course assume that an incendiary play like ‘The Priests’ Revolt’ would have an impact, but do you perhaps have more intimate yet still powerful memories of the other works, both in terms of the initial writing and eventual staging?

Michael Fenech first staged The Priests’ Revolt (Ir-Rewwixxta tal-Qassisin) at the Manoel Theatre in 1986 under a Labour government. It was only months before the 1987 election. The parallels between what was happening in the play and in Malta at the time were obvious to most people, especially to those Nationalist supporters who harboured anti-government sentiments. Unfortunately those same people who interpreted the play solely as an attack on the then Labour government took offence at the programme note of the 2005 production, where I wrote that nothing had really changed under a Nationalist government except the faces.

In Immanuel Mifsud’s 2009 production of Ippermettili Nitlaq (Please, Let me Go) I remember watching the play for the first time during the dress rehearsal and feeling overwhelmed at the ending. Paul Xuereb in his review described that ending as one of the most heart-rending he has seen in a play by a Maltese author.

On Malcolm Galea’s production of ‘On Minors, Midlife Crises and Fast Motorbikes’ I recall how the stage manager, Franco Rizzo, saved the day when he replaced one of the actors who fell ill a couple of days before the first night. Franco was some eight years too old for the part of a teenage schoolboy, but he was word-perfect and knew exactly what to do. Something I still find striking about that production is that of the three professional critics who reviewed the play, none of them realised that the teenage girl’s infatuation with her boyfriend’s father was only a figment of the father’s imagination, though many members of the audience found  it obvious. In one of the performances, Angele Galea, who played the female lead, tripped and fell. She carried on with the performance as if nothing had happened, but later found out she was already pregnant with her second child that night. Fortunately, it all turned out well.

During Mela Hawn xi Manikomju (What is This a Madhouse?) I remember two things in particular. One was the difficulty in casting an older actress for the part of Lina because of the foul language she used during the play. We finally settled for a much younger actress, Leigh-Ann Abela, which neither the director nor I regretted. A funny incident happened during one of the performances when Tyrone Grima, the director, decided to spice up the broth which we usually left to simmer during the performance to suggest that hospital smell to the audience. When the broth was given to the actresses playing the elderly patients on stage they almost choked on it and couldn’t eat it.

Speaking of The Priests’ Revolt, could you delve into how and why it caused such a furore when it was first staged? What would you say that reaction said about Malta at the time?

I think that for a mere play, there was quite a reaction at the time. The play was an attack on Maltese society, our parochial way of thinking, the way we do things, the Church which is always silent in times of need. The interesting thing was that both political parties interpreted it as an attack on the other party but not on their own. I had no sympathy for either party at the time, neither for the Labour Party which was running the country like some personal fiefdom nor for the Nationalist Party which was staging protests and demonstrations every week because it wouldn’t accept the 1981 electoral result. The parallels of the time with the historical facts of the Priests’ Revolt were there for everyone to see.

One has to understand the people’s mood in the ‘80s – the dependence on government to get a telephone line, a television set, a job. And for this, supporters felt indebted to the party and therefore remained silent. The message I tried to convey was that political parties and politicians will always remain the same and that unless the common people united and stood up to them, nothing was going to change. Unfortunately nothing has changed since. Everyone in Malta can still be easily bribed with the promise of jobs and political appointments while the Nationalists are still struggling with the fact that their party is not running the show.

Perhaps Paul Xuereb’s  review of the play says it better than I can: ‘Last Sunday’s sizeable audience at the Manoel, a predominantly young one, responded with glee and delighted surprise to a work which is not only brilliantly conceived and skilfully constructed by also an ingeniously oblique, humorous and very thought-provoking commentary on contemporary politics in this country.’

Although the book itself suggests a kind of “retrospective” look back at your career, its most recent entry is – well – as recent as 2016. Given that rich experience of Maltese theatre, what would you say have been some of the most significant developments in the field since you first started out, until now?

There are definitely less restrictions now that censorship has been removed. I remember when ‘Ir-Rewwixta’ was first staged the censor told us to remove the word ‘cwiec’ because it was considered vulgar. We said ‘ok’ but we left it as it was and actually nothing happened. Censorship persisted till 2012 if I remember correctly. When I staged Dwar Menopawsi in 2012, I was afraid it might be suppressed by the censors because of its colourful language and you begin to wonder what the censors’ benchmarks really were.

In a way, I find Maltese theatre is still in an adolescent phase where producers are still anxious to ‘shock for shock’s sake’ as it were. The way some plays are publicised emphasises the controversial element to attract audiences. I feel on the other hand that Maltese theatre-goers have become more discerning and don’t need sensationalism to enjoy and appreciate a theatre production. Another development is state funding for productions. However, it’s a pity that some of the most mediocre Maltese plays in recent years have been the ones which got the most funding.

On the whole, audiences have become more sophisticated, as I was saying, and demand their money’s worth. This has resulted in making production costs much higher, though. So producers are a bit reluctant to stage plays in Maltese because costs have escalated. Gone are the days when one could produce a play for the equivalent of €250.

What do you make of the current crop of local theatre-makers, and are there any contemporary theatrical “trends” that you think are worthwhile or encouraging?

The creation of Teatru Malta just recently, with Sean Buhagiar as its artistic director, is the best thing to happen in the national theatre scene for quite a few years. Finally we have an entity that will coordinate a programme of national and international projects. The people involved seem determined to cater for a wide variety of audiences. This augurs well for Maltese theatre.

You’ve also revealed that you’re working on your “last play”. Could you tell us something about that?

I’m an avid reader of true crime and I find unsolved crimes especially intriguing. My latest play is based on a murder which happened in Malta some years ago which is shrouded in mystery and is quite unique in the annals of crime. Although it took me some four years (on and off) to conclude my first draft, I’m now working on the second draft.  At this stage I don’t want to reveal much but I’m hoping it will be ready for production by the end of the year.

Nothing has changed since the ‘80s – everyone in Malta can still be easily bribed with the promise of jobs and political appointments while the Nationalists are still struggling with the fact that their party is not running the show