Għanqbut f’Moħħha: an immersive experience that challenges the mind

LAURA CALLEJA speaks to director Tyrone Grima on his latest production, Għanqbut f’Moħħha, based on American-British author Henry James short story ‘The way it came’ taking place at the Valletta Campus Theatre from 14 to 16 April

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

Għanqbut f’Moħħha is a play which focuses on the supernatural. The setting is an antique shop, which the protagonist, Isabel (Sharon Bezzina), reopens, despite the fact that it had been shut down years before due to a mysterious tragedy that occurred in the back room of the shop, which involved her own parents. As the story unfolds, we realise that in a mysterious manner, the whole village community is affected by the supernatural happenings in the shop, particularly the two most important people in Isabel’s life, her best friend Milly (Sarah Lee Zammit) and her husband-to-be, Ralph (André Mangion). The storyline, however, plays on whether all this is really happening, or whether they are the fruit of the compulsive thoughts that Isabel has. The audience will be offered an immersive experience. The atmosphere required in the play will be created through a multisensorial approach using sounds, music, silence, physical expression and smells. This approach intrigues me and I have been experimenting with it for the last few years. This production will be an opportunity to take it a step further.

What made you realise the works of Henry James would connect with a Maltese audience?

The choice of the right text for this project was not easy. Sharon, who is also co-producing with me, and I, went through several scripts and texts. As soon as we read the shorty story by Henry James, ‘The way it came’ (also known as ’The friends of friends’) we were intrigued by it, even though it is one of James’s less famous works. Of course, in the process, we took liberties and we did contextualise the setting (although our version is not necessarily taking place in Malta). James offers a context which is enshrouded in mystery. His work is deeply psychological, and yet he does not try to explain everything.

Somehow, despite the fact that his works are clearly rooted in a specific geographical and cultural setting, he creates a universe which transcends time and hits at the core of what it is to be human with all the fears that we face. Hence, his story is just as much a narrative that explores the fear of the supernatural as much as the fear of intimacy. The interest in the supernatural is something that has always featured in Maltese folklore, and of course, with the recent surge of the popularity of the horror genre with the younger generation, we can safely say that the Maltese audience enjoys to be that feeling of unease.

But more importantly to us is the relevance of the piece to the Maltese audience. Research shows clearly that fear of intimacy has increased locally (as well as internationally). It is a real fear that sabotages our most meaningful relationships. The supernatural in our piece is a metaphor: the real fear is our deep desire to connect and yet our paralysis that does not allows us to do so. And that is certainly more horrific.

What challenges did you face while directing this production?

Directing a devised performance is a challenge. It is trusting that the different contributions coming from all the creatives will eventually gel together. It feels like a jigsaw puzzle where you have all the pieces spread out on the floor initially, and cannot fathom how these could possibly come together. The miracle is that they do, but it requires a leap in the dark and a lot of trust.

To make things more complicated, this piece has some physicalised scenes, and working with the body, although of deep personal interest to me, was out of my comfort zone. But I like to challenge myself. It is the only way forward to grow artistically. And of course I had the right team to support the process and to ensure that this was done successfully. I also think that another challenge was creating a piece that deals with the supernatural in an authentic manner. However, I knew that this challenged was surmountable when the cast was finalised. The five actors I worked with are so generous, raw and skilled that they ooze the required emotions in what seems to be an effortless manner.

Do you have a favourite scene, or stand our performance?

The play is composed of many short scenes, some of which without words. It is very difficult to to identify a favourite scene But if I had to mention one, it would certainly be the final scene of the protagonist where her spiralling down into madness is conveyed powerfully with the minimal use of words. It always leaves me nailed, no matter how often I watch it. I also love the pre-set, the only moment where all the actors are on stage at the same time. It is a fluid ‘scene’ that will change from day to day. This is where you appreciate how flexible and resourceful this cast is!

The project has been described as “being designed collectively” – can you expand on what that means and how it differs from other productions?

The artistic process leading to this performance was a lengthy one. Although we had the text by Henry James, the work was devised. In the first phase, the actors improvised (without using any words) on some of the themes that emerge from the story.

Then they moved into the second phase, where they had a full week of training from Piper Theatre, an American theatre company that was flown to Malta on purpose to offer further skills to our actors. This was an amazing and enriching experience. In the third phase, we kept on improvising and structuring further our ideas and seeing how they can fit together (the crisis of the jigsaw puzzle). When we had a number of ideas together, I penned the first draft of the script (do not ask me how many mini-drafts followed. I have lost count).

The scenes of the script were all based on the ideas that the actors came up with, and a mixture of spoken and some non-spoken scenes. We then worked on each scene separately, bringing in also other people, such as movement coach Rochelle Gatt, to fine tune the work. By the end of March we had a final product, and we are now gearing up to share it with our audience.