Raising some hell at Spazju Kreattiv: ‘Bil-Bieb Mitbuq’

Laura Calleja speaks to Kevin Saliba on his Maltese translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s work ‘Huis Clos’ and the production of ‘Bil-Bieb Mitbuq’ which will be on at Spazju kreattiv from the 27 January to 29 January 2023

Bil-Bieb Mitbuq is based on your Maltese translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos. Can you tell us the reasoning behind deciding to translate this work?

I’ve been exposed to Sartre’s work since my mid-teens. Prior to that I didn’t know much about philosophy. Still a senior MUSEUM member, I had only read some Augustine and Aquinas along with some Catholic heavyweights like Thomas Kempis. Thus, studying literature and philosophy at college was a huge game-changer. In retrospect I’d say it was tad traumatic: until then, in my book “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good”. Then along came Sartre and his fellow existentialists to upset the apple cart.

Sartre’s works made a huge impression on me back then. Unable to make much sense of his philosophical works, I stuck to his literary output instead, particularly ‘Nausea’ and ‘No Exit’. Incidentally the former conveyed, especially certain salient passages, exactly the way I sometimes felt about most things – that all-pervasive sense of meaninglessness threatening to engulf the entire world. Suddenly most of my assurances started, slowly but surely, to crumble. My sense of self was shattered. My wilful misreading of Nietzsche’s famous dictum “God is dead” didn’t help things at all: I turned my back on Catholicism in favour of Marxism. Heaven could wait.

You might think that thus my youth was rather ruined, but I beg to differ: given a choice I wouldn’t change much of it. Make no mistake: it was unarguably one of the most exciting periods of my life, only second to my time in Luxembourg.

‘No Exit’ back then struck me as equally revelatory: cognitive biases aside, I saw the play being staged literally everywhere, and I just couldn’t help believing that most human relationships are bound to be intrinsically dysfunctional. Moreover, I felt sad noticing that many people place too much importance on what others happen to think of them. Perhaps I was surrounded by the wrong sorts of people, but to this very day I believe that Sartre was really onto something. Then of course there was his minimalist vison of hell: just three people taunting each other – in an impossible love triangle – with their own baggage, prejudices, perceptions and desires. To my ears it all sounded as the devil stripped-down, live, unplugged. As Jim Morrison puts it in poem Elegy, “could any Hell be more horrible than now, and real?” A big question, that one.

I still recall discussing this play, just 17, with a former mentor – a school headmaster with the reputation of a “sapituttu” – while musing about translating into Maltese with an eye to raising some hell by staging it all at St James Cavalier. But I didn’t feel up to it. So, we can argue that this project is, strictly speaking, some 25 years old. My interest in this play – also on an academic level – never wavered. I have also seen the play staged abroad numerous times. Nonetheless almost a decade later, when I took up translation studies, I choose to translate ‘Nausea’ instead. But that’s a story for another day, perhaps.

Why did you think it would resonate with a Maltese audience?

I think of Sartre a universal philosopher, so it stands to reason that he resonates with all audiences, irrespective of nationality, race, gender or credos. Philosophical themes such as existence, essence freedom, bad faith, being-for-others, meaning, the self, the other, the look, shame, intersubjectivity, anguish, abandonment and despair among others shall always keep on haunting the human condition as long as mankind lives – there’s no exit from such things. You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave, as that overplayed oldie goes. That should be enough to place him among the all-time Western greats, up there with Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger.

Which is not to say that I don’t have – mind you – some strong misgivings about the man and his work, including this one.

Producer Kevin Saliba (front, right), director Tyrone Grima (front, left), with choreographers Yuko Kominami (back, right), Jill Crovisier (back, centre) and Dorian Mallia. Photo: Steven Levi Vella
Producer Kevin Saliba (front, right), director Tyrone Grima (front, left), with choreographers Yuko Kominami (back, right), Jill Crovisier (back, centre) and Dorian Mallia. Photo: Steven Levi Vella

What was the most challenging aspect of translating the work and then turning it into a production?

I finally decided to translate this text in 2018 so as to negotiate some very difficult personal circumstances. I cannot say I found the task particularly challenging. It was as if the words – to my surprise – just flowed on the page on their own accord. Maybe it’s because I had already been translating literature and philosophy for a good number of years. Or perhaps it was just because this project had been simmering on the back burner for over two decades. I don’t know.

That being said, this must be the text I enjoyed translating the most – which is a bit odd considering my penchant for being wrestled down to the ground by words. But to my mind nothing beats translating dialogues – especially these kinds of vicious exchanges.

Turning this into a production was an entirely different ball game. For starters I had no previous experience, so I simply had to learn thing as I went along – easily the craziest thing I ever did. Challenges were manifold on several levels: logistics, personnel changes, coordination, blending all the different elements such as music, dance film into a one, single piece, time, money, professional relations and, of course, the pandemic.

This piece was originally scheduled for 2020 but it wasn’t to be. Admittedly, during the COVID-19 lockdown I was having lots of second thoughts about proceeding with the project – I had almost decided to call it a day. Also, kick-starting just about everything post-lockdown – almost from scratch at times – was certainly the biggest headache we had to deal with. That was hell, as well, but also a learning curve.

What can the audience expect from the production? What do you think will surprise the audience the most?

Frankly, I don’t know. Different people tend to focus on different things. I can’t recall a single instance when my take on a play – or any other work of art – was exactly like mine. Nevertheless, I presume that the integration of danztheatre – invoking the living among the dead – into the whole performance might surprise many. But that’s not for me to decide.

Spazju Kreattiv is an imitate space. How does that influence the audience’s experience with the material?

As I said my aim has always been, even a as naïve teen, to stage this work at Spazju Kreattiv. I’ve always believed that this play should engage the audience as much as possible. After all this piece is, for most intents and purposes, about them.

Director Tyrone Grima and I had agreed – right from the outset – that we should strive to create an intimate, possibly claustrophobic, experience. Due to structural reasons, most performances I’ve seen abroad lacked this basic element. So, thank goodness we have Spazju Kreattiv. I can’t think of any other venue.

There’s also a major phenomenological Sartrean theme at play here: the look – one’s visibility to another. Throughout the performance actors Antonella Axisa, Sarah Camilleri and André Mangion will be looked at by the audience from a far more immediate vantage point. Moreover, this proximity is reciprocal. This should create, hopefully at least, a rather uncommon theatrical experience – the audience would feel, as well, as if they’re being watched – addressed, judged, scorned even.

Can you talk to us about why you felt using Maltese and foreign choreographers was necessary for this production?

I’ve always been interested in the art of dance choreography, especially those of Asian variants. During my time in Luxembourg this fascination was enhanced by some chance meetings with several internationally acclaimed choreographers, most notably Japanese dancer Yuko Kominami who will feature in this piece on screens along with Luxemburgish dancer Jill Crovisier and Dorian Mallia.

We could have easily opted for a conventional approach by hiring more actors, but both Grima and I felt that choreographing certain passages on screen would be more effective and maybe also a little innovative. But enough with spoilers.

Furthermore, internationalisation has become an essential part of our National Cultural Policy in general and Arts Council Malta’s strategy for coming years in particular.

Speaking of local entities, I’d like to thank Spazju Kreattiv for making their venue available, MCAST for offering a much-needed rehearsal space and Arts Council Malta for supporting the project through its funding programme.

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