Maltese theatre grows up | Marco Galea

While we may not have a figure to match the late, great Francis Ebejer, local theatre historian Marco Galea tells us that we should be optimistic about the future of Maltese-language theatre.

Marco Galea: “I’m surprised that we have, in fact, never entirely tackled the very rich and relevant theme of multiculturalism in Malta”
Marco Galea: “I’m surprised that we have, in fact, never entirely tackled the very rich and relevant theme of multiculturalism in Malta”

During my conversation with Maltese theatre historian Marco Galea, the figure of Francis Ebejer crops up almost constantly - sometimes, admittedly, at my own prompting but often just as a matter of course.

This, however, is hardly surprising. Ebejer, who passed away in 1993, remains one of Malta's trailblazing authors and playwrights, having defined Maltese-language theatre in the 1970s in a way that has perhaps not been felt on the local stage since.

But Ebejer's presence in our conversation is perhaps cued by the fact that the aptly named, annual Francis Ebejer Award will soon be bestowed upon an up-and-coming Maltese playwright.

Marco Galea, who has sat on the judging panel for the award a number of times, as well as having penned his own tribute to Ebejer with the 2008 production Ghaziz Francis, remains hopeful about the remit of the award after all these years.

"The award is a good initiative, and by now it carries a certain stamp of approval: it's safe to assume that a play that has won the Francis Ebejer Award is a quality one. It also gave some talented writers that necessary push towards finishing and presenting their work."

Galea adds however that in future, the award should go beyond the text of the plays and also acknowledge the fact that putting up a play is a far more holistic, collaborative effort.

"I think it's good that we're moving beyond the perception that a playwright just types up a play and then just sends it to the director, who would then set about staging it. We could perhaps discuss ways in which the award doesn't just consider the playwright, but an entire team, perhaps taking a theme as a starting point."

Whether the award itself has a direct bearing on this phenomenon or not is debatable, but Galea is hopeful that we may be witnessing something of a resurgence of plays written and performed in Maltese.

 "If you were to compare the situation to what it was even just a handful of years ago, you'll find that audiences going to watch Maltese-language theatre have increased substantially. You wouldn't dream that Maltese plays would attract full houses, and for whatever reason, now they do..."

It's hardly a stab in the dark to assume that the Maltese plays Galea is referring to here include the recent ventures by the freshly-minted theatrical initiative Fondazzjoni Avventura, which attracted sizable crowds (and mixed criticism) for their recent plays 'L-Indemonjati u Maltin Ohra' and 'In-Nisa Maltin Jafu Kif.'

While deeming it impossible to pinpoint a conclusive reason for this sudden surge in popularity, Galea acknowledges that perhaps marketing the plays as somehow 'scandalous' or 'shocking' may have something to do with it.

"Some of these production houses feel the need to highlight that there will be swearing, or nudity on stage... it works to attract the crowds, I guess, but it's also a tactic that could blow up in our faces."

Galea contends that ultimately, local theatregoers will be attracted to plays that tend to comment directly on their own experience or which tend to be pointing a satirical finger at some aspect or other of Maltese society.

"In fact, when Ebejer himself attempted to break that mould by staging more 'experimental' plays in the 70s, people were taken aback because it seemed to come out of nowhere. Leaving aside the fact that Ebejer was a bit of an anomaly anyway, with no similar precedents in the scene... the fact that these 'absurdist' plays were greeted with a frosty reception cements the fact that realistic, or naturalistic, theatre is what goes down best with local audiences."

This of course inspires the question: "Is there any particular kind of theatre that Galea sees as emerging naturally in the current, local context?"

"I'm surprised that we have, in fact, never entirely tackled the very rich and relevant theme of multiculturalism in Malta. A lot of Maltese drama tends to look back, sometimes under a heavy pall of nostalgia, and to characterise Maltese identity as something monolithic... which I don't find to be all that relevant anymore."

He is however glad to see "strong, mature" writing for the stage by female playwrights (namely Clare Azzopardi and Simone Spiteri), which appears to be a first for the Maltese theatrical scene.

He's less confident, however, about Malta's ability to accommodate a truly varied stage scenario.

"This is simply due to our limited size and, by extension, our limited audiences. This is why, for instance, I can't really picture a gay theatrical scene flourishing here, sadly... at least, I wouldn't imagine that kind of theatre attracting the same kind of crowds that the prominent Maltese-language plays at the Manoel Theatre have attracted."

This segues neatly into my next question: Shouldn't less prominent - but perhaps more interesting - alternative venues be sought out?

"That's absolutely right. In fact, I firmly believe that the Manoel Theatre isn't the ideal venue for trying out things that are new, for a number of reasons: the size, the cost involved and just the nature of the structure itself. Venues like St James Cavalier and MITP do serve as worthwhile alternatives, because at least there you don't have the pressure of having to pull a sizeable audience..."

Beyond those 'standard' alternatives, however, Galea suggests that perhaps our next goal should be to seek out performance spaces that may not necessarily be theatres 'proper.'

"Given the economic situation of the whole world in general, and Malta included," Galea says with a wry smile, "I wouldn't imagine that we're in a position to start creating new theatres willy-nilly. But if anything, this should in fact motivate us to get creative and make use of new and unpredictable spaces in which to stage our productions," Galea adds, citing Theatre Anon's 2010 production 'Ospizio' - a site-specific piece penned by Clare Azzopardi and inspired by the historic venue itself.

In and of itself, the search for new venues could prove to be a vital injection to the Maltese theatre scene.

"In fact, it could serve to make theatre more interesting and more accessible to a wider variety of people."

The Francis Ebejer Award is administered by the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts. The deadline for submissions is 28 June.

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