Written in the stars… or is it? | Philip Leone-Ganado

Something of a ‘tender epic’ of a play, Nick Payne’s two-hander about a couple falling in and out of love and back again will be debuting on the Maltese stage courtesy of WhatsTheirNames Theatre at the Splendid, Strait Street, Valletta over May 3, 4, 5 and 10, 11, 12. We speak to Philip Leone-Ganado, who directs Nathan Brimmer and Maria Pia Meli in this ambitious (and brand new) drama.

Maria Pia Meli and Nathan Brimmer. Photo by David Schembri.
Maria Pia Meli and Nathan Brimmer. Photo by David Schembri.

Nick Payne's play is both intimate and cosmic. What attracted you to this seemingly ambitious script?

The moment I read the synopsis I knew this was something I wanted to know more about. When I read the script and passed it on to some people I trust to get an opinion we all had similar reactions: it's the sort of play you put down at the end and just stare into space, trying to digest what you've experienced.

'Beautiful' was the only word that came to mind. It's a play that asks us to confront the big question: what does it mean to live in a universe without god, without meaning? What do we cling to? But it does it in a disarmingly human, simple way, by presenting us with an average couple in an average relationship, finding love and losing it and finding it again. In a nutshell: it's the sort of story I love, and so the sort I want to share with others.

On a related note, how did you then go about selecting the right actors: it is of course a delicate balance, especially considering we're with them for the entire play...

Yes, it was tricky. I wanted two actors who were strong enough in their own right to handle the demands of a two-hander, and one that asks quite a bit of its actors. Then they needed to have good onstage chemistry and obviously be well-suited to the roles they were playing. After several (!) rounds of auditions I'm pretty sure I've found what I was looking for with Nathan and Maria Pia.

I've directed Nathan a couple of times before, and though I've worked with MP once (as an actor), she brings a fresh perspective to the process, which I think is really important. Both have done some great work getting to the heart of the characters and the story, and have found things that I never saw coming, which is always nice.

How would chart the evolution of WhatsTheirNames theatre? What have you learnt so far, and how will you be implementing it in this particular production?

We've never really done the same sort of project twice - sequentially we've gone from sketches to poetic drama to comic drama to screwball comedy to Greek tragedy to contemporary drama (with the man from Stratford finally lined up after this) - so I'd say it's just a process of continuous evolution.

Obviously each production has taught me different lessons, mostly in the form of spectacular mistakes I promise never to replicate- particularly in terms of production and dealing with actors, and hopefully I've applied that to the next one. In terms of Constellations, I don't think I'd have been able to direct this play when we started 4 years ago.

Artistically I feel I've matured, and the direction I'm putting in to this is a product of that development. To avoid being vague I could say that this play builds on what I found in The Burial at Thebes playing with a non-naturalistic mis en scene...but that sounds ridiculously pretentious, and I've never really thought about it like that. It's always been about doing what seems to make sense at the time, really.

What are some of the key challenges of maintaining a 'fringe' theatre group like WhatsTheirNames Theatre within the local context?

I'd say the biggest problem is simply finding time to work. It's a reality that the people you want to work with will often be caught up working for other companies, and even when you get everyone together, you're working round everyone's day jobs - we don't have the production support that comes with working for a big company like the MADC or Masquerade, so we have to do everything ourselves, which is hugely rewarding but unbelievably stressful.

Of course even the fact that you're a bunch of clueless twenty-somethings working alone means that often you're throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks, not only artistically but even from a production aspect - getting the technical side down, finding the money and getting the word of our existence out there. But it's part of the fun for me. I never get quite the same thrill working for someone else as going it alone with a few people I trust.

The chosen venue for the play interesting - what are some of the advantages of staging the play in such an intimate space?

First of all I really like the idea that the audience is coming to a place many of them will not be familiar with. We have a bit of a dearth of performing venues in Malta, and seeing the same actors on the same stage time and time again takes some of the intensity away from the actual performance, I feel.

So I love pushing the envelope a little. Secondly the Splendid is a wonderfully atmospheric place - it feels like it's remained untouched since it closed in the 60s, slowly decaying, so it has a character that's hard to match, and that I think will really transmit itself into our piece.

Finally, we're working in a tiny performance space, so the actors will be up close and personal with the audience. You'll feel like you're peeking through a window into a couple's life. I expect that to be in turn effecting, uncomfortable, exhilarating.

The play starts at 20:00. Tickets are at €10. Bookings: [email protected], 77 345207. Due to limited seating, ticket sales at the door cannot be guaranteed. The play is rated 14.

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