Staging scandals, stealthily | Chris Gatt

We speak to theatre director Chris Gatt about adapting Caryl Churchill’s family cloning drama A Number (starring John Suda and Mikhail Basmadjan) working with Unifaun Theatre once again, and the long-awaited production of the beleaguered Stitching…

Chris Gatt, on Stitching: “What I hope is that people will come in thinking one thing and then realise it was very much a case of much ado about nothing”.
Chris Gatt, on Stitching: “What I hope is that people will come in thinking one thing and then realise it was very much a case of much ado about nothing”.

You've directed Unifaun plays before... is there a kind of common mood to all Unifaun productions - both in terms of the selected plays, and the general atmosphere among cast and crew - and if so, how would you describe it?

Last item first (regarding the general atmosphere among cast and crew) - I would describe it as abject terror, and ask [producer Adrian Buckle] why in the world he keeps asking me.

Seriously, if there is a common thread among all Unifaun Productions it's the fact that they always offer great scripts, with much food for thought, and are positively great entertainment. In fact, I'd like to stress that last point as unfortunately the tendency over the last few years is to think in terms of the scandal element. Yes, some of Unifaun's plays have been provocative, but if there is one overriding factor it has always been to remind audiences just why we go to the theatre. The productions have almost consistently guaranteed a great night out. Funny, emotionally gripping, atmospheric and above all, highly theatrical.

Because of the fact that plays in Malta are done on a shoestring budget, and Unifaun is essentially a one-man band, so the last week tends to be fraught with last minute  issues: missing props, sourcing the right costumes, building sets. But the good news is we haven't killed each other... yet.

What kind of images did Churchill's play inspire when you first read it? How did you begin to conceive of it as a stage production, and what excited you most about it?

It's strange, but I'm a terrible play-reader. I have to slog through a script to get to the bottom of it. I usually discover the play as I work with the  actors. So usually, I have a very vague idea of what the final look of the play will be like. So in this case, the only  image I had was the small sitting room of Salter, the father figure. 

What inspired me was - as is often the case - the language. I have rarely come across a script which so perfectly captured the rhythms, the stream of consciousness, of way in which people think. The phrasing of each passage is so revealing of the characters, so specific of each character that it left  me in awe of the author. Churchill is truly one of the great playwrights of the 20th century.

READ MORE: Unifaun productions to stage human cloning drama.

The correlation between the IVF controversy (locally) and cloning has been made... were you aware of this connection and did you choose to develop it for the production itself?

Adrian gave me a choice of two plays and I went for this one partly because of the whole IVF controversy. I must confess I am sitting on the fence with regard to this issue. And this play adds one more dimension to it. IVF technology is an amazing concept, and has no doubt given much joy to a lot of parents. But it is also sometimes the result of a selfish need where the embryo is there to fulfil a personal desire. One remembers the case of the Spanish woman who gave birth at 66 only to die two and a half years later from cancer, leaving twins. True, she lied about her age, but one must ask: what was the impulse for this desire to be a mother, and is it right to fulfil that desire?

Similarly the question needs to be asked: just because certain things are possible  through science, should they be allowed. And does it turn the embryo into a desirable product  as opposed to a person?

We will be examining these questions as well as were things stand with regard to  cloning in Malta in a specially-programmed edition of  the Malta Cafe Scientifique on Sunday, October 28.

John Suda and Mikhail Basmadjan in the play A Number

John Suda (left) and Mikhail Basmadjan.

The play sounds like a two-hander... for four different characters. How would you describe the dynamic between John Suda and Mikhail Basmadjan in this respect?

Yes - Mikhail has to play three different parts. Interestingly enough, I thought it was going to be difficult to  differentiate, but the script is so clear that this has not proven to be a problem at all. Add to this the privilege of working with Mikhail and John: two consummate actors who have taken to the script with a enthusiasm and energy   that amazes me. It has been a really great rehearsal process, and  the audience is in for a truly great piece of theatre.

Would you in any way compare A Number to Stitching in terms of the sensitive buttons it pushes?

No. And yes. They are both about the need for strong relationships. They both have  damaged people. They are both about love and they are both funny and tragic.

Are you confident that you'll get to stage Stitching in the near future? What kind of response to you think the (long overdue) production will inspire once it finally hits the boards?

Stitching will definitely happen. As to the reaction... well, what I hope is that people will come in thinking one thing and then realise it was very much a case of much ado about nothing.

A Number will be playing at St James Cavalier, Valletta over October 19-21 and 26-28 at 20:00. Tickets are at €15 (€12 for opening night). Bookings: [email protected], 21 223200. The play is rated 16, and forms part of the Science in the City project.