Giving farce the respect it deserves | Chris Gatt

WhatsTheirNames Theatre, known for their stripped down Shakespere productions, present Malta’s first post-lockdown show with a take on the Bard’s early farce, Comedy of Errors, in the beautiful setting of Villa Bologna

Double take: Joseph Zammit (left) and James Ryder follow through with the WhatsTheirNames tradition of taking on multiple roles
Double take: Joseph Zammit (left) and James Ryder follow through with the WhatsTheirNames tradition of taking on multiple roles

How does it feel to be taking the reins of the WhatsTheirNames Shakespeare productions? What did you make of their previous takes on the Bard’s work?

I’m not sure how to answer this question. I’m certainly not ‘taking over’ anyone’s reins.  Also because I feel that  the question implies that the company  has some kind of house style, some kind of ‘branding’. I tend to think of each production within its own terms. I’m not keen on ‘branding’ in the arts. In fact I’m suspicious of it. While recognising that over a period of time, a company can come to have ‘a house style’, I don’t feel the need to commit to it. Indeed, my instinct is often to question it. Once something feels safe, I feel, it should be discarded.

Having said that, the choice of WhatsTheirNames Theatre to work on big plays with a small cast in intimate spaces (whether by force majeure or choice) is an exciting one. It immediately challenges actors, and the audience focuses attention on the script itself. So I suppose this gives them a ‘house-style’ of sorts.

It is this intimacy of space and cast which is probably the secret of their success. That, and the fact that they are a rather talented bunch of people.

So for me it is a great privilege to be ‘guest directing’ these artists. In many ways it takes me back to when another small group of actors got together to create Theatre Anon. Again, limited budgets and spaces to work in led us, even in that case, to create stripped down, high energy  productions to engage an audience with.

I think, ultimately, as with all theatre, ‘the play is the thing’. And in WhatsTheirNames Theatre there is a company focused on telling stories in as clear a manner possible.     

'I’m not keen on ‘branding’ in the arts. In fact I’m suspicious of it'
'I’m not keen on ‘branding’ in the arts. In fact I’m suspicious of it'

Comedy of Errors may not be the most instantly recognisable of Shakespeare’s comedies – what attracts you to the text, and how will you be approaching the production itself?

You are right. I think it is rarely produced because, first of all, it is an early work of Shakespeare’s but secondly – because it’s a farce. Unfortunately, farce is still not  given the respect it deserves. And this is a shame. As in this play  Shakespeare has  shown that, even at this early stage in his career, he has a really firm grasp on plot and characters. His craftsmanship as a farceur is equivalent to Feydeau and Plautus, from whom he derived the original plot.

As to why this play… well, apart from the fact that after three dire months I think we need a bit of a laugh, but also because we have a very short rehearsal period before different people disappear into other projects, and this is Shakespeare’s shortest play.

However, I think the main reason is that it is a relatively unknown Shakespeare and I love the thrill of watching an audience discover a play for the first time. It also allows  the actors and myself to create new characters without having to look over our shoulders at  the ‘tradition’ of past performances.

Most notably, this will also be Malta’s first ‘post-lockdown’ theatrical show. Do you feel an additional degree of attention/responsibility as a result of this? And is it the case that the WhatsTheirNames model is particularly amenable to theatre produced under this very particular kind of duress?

Essentially, the original concept was to create something outdoors (which is always safer) and for small groups. For once, there is safety in smaller numbers!

As we take baby steps back to normality, we are trying to figure out how to keep audiences and actors safe and entertained. Malta was lucky in exiting relatively unscathed. How far we can push the boat out is a moot point. There are no clear-cut answers and we will continue to take all the precautions we can. But I am confident that we will be performing in a very safe environment.

Chris Gatt
Chris Gatt

What do you make of the way that Malta’s cultural scene in general and theatrical scene in particular reacted to the onset of COVID-19? What would you like us to learn from this so-called crisis?

The main thing to be taken on board  is that we are probably the most  vulnerable sector in society.

Many of us have seen their income reduced to zero, where many others have continued to make ends meet by working from home and so on. Luckily, we were given a lifeline through the government’s furlough scheme. The main fear right now, however, is that all that will inevitably come to end before we can return to work in a structured and sustainable way. And then of course, once we do return to work, we usually have to wait  at least two months  to get paid as the income is tallied up and passed down the chain of command.

At this point, we are going to need the real support of government institutions, especially those who  hold the keys to performing spaces. They need to understand that  most of us freelancers, and especially producers, have taken a major hit and we cannot go back to  working and creating performances, especially  with current restrictions in the number of seats and so on, with the full support of these institutions.

On the other hand, these same performers have been extremely generous with their talent, entertaining their audiences and probably  more than their usual audiences, via digital media. The  numbers were surprisingly high.

So that poses the intriguing question: post-COVID, is there enough of an audience, and more importantly, enough of a paying audience, to support and back up the digital audience? Obviously, nothing can be as much fun as the real thing, that of being in a theatre and sharing a live performance with other audience members. But there may be those who are unable or unwilling to attend live performances in the wake of the pandemic – for any number of reasons – and then there may be others who are just itching to relive the experience. Just how large is that latter category? This is certainly worth considering.

It certainly highlighted the importance of creating a visual and aural archive of performances especially in the government-owned entities

Sandie Von Brockdorff and Gianni Selvaggi
Sandie Von Brockdorff and Gianni Selvaggi

What’s next for you?

Well, the main problem is that it’s really a case of what’s next for Malta. If all goes well I pick up some abandoned pieces such as finally staging  Sister Act in March. But I am also working on a really  wonderful  Eduardo de Filippo play, Napoli Milionaria!, for MADC and Teatru Manoel for April 2021, and a new work with Theatre Anon and produced by Teatru Malta (again postponed from this year) for July 2021. Prior to that, there are a couple projects which may or may not see the light of day so I’d rather not reveal those for now.

Comedy of Errors: Shakespeare in the Garden will be staged at Villa Bologna, Attard on July 16, 17, 18 and 19 at 20:30. Bookings: [email protected], 7905 2522. The production will be fully compliant with government regulations on outdoor theatres. Audience members will be seated at tables of no more than six, with at least two metres in between tables. Temperature checks will be taken at the door and physical distancing will be enforced