The heretic we didn’t deserve | Mario Philip Azzopardi

Following the success of Jiena Nhobb, Inti Thobb, theatre director Mario Philip Azzopardi speaks – and speaks, and speaks – to us about Stagun Teatru Malti’s upcoming production, Cittadin Vassalli, which will dramatise the contentious historical figure of Mikiel Anton Vassalli.

Mario Philip Azzopardi.
Mario Philip Azzopardi.

Ask theatre director Mario Philip Azzopardi about Mikiel Anton Vassalli, and watch him go.

In a behavioural transformation that I would hazard to call ‘grotesque’ for fear of insulting the guy – though I maintain that it describes the passionate vitriol he exhibits during our conversation with some accuracy – it’s clear that the chosen subject of his next play is rich pickings for topics close to his – and, he argues with steady conviction – Malta’s heart.

“I am Mikiel Anton Vassalli’s right descendant,” he says when I ask about what attracted him to the contentious historical figure in the first place, as he prepares to direct and stage Cittadin Vassalli – a theatrical reimagining of the ill-treated Maltese-language paladin – at the Manoel Theatre next month.

“I have his ring back home… and more importantly, my family has an original copy of his Lexicon…”

This, I soon discover, is about the only bit of factual information Azzopardi will proffer during our conversation. As soon as he lets out that “Vassalli was always an interesting character…” he descends into an often-angry monologue about the implications of his subject’s biography – perhaps confirming that Vassalli’s story remains relevant to this day.

I don’t want to turn this article into a history lesson – a potted round-up of who Vassalli was runs the risk of not really doing him justice – so I’ll just reproduce how Stagun Teatru Malti, the theatre company “that brought you Jiena Nhobb, Inti Thobb”, are approaching their (controversial) subject.

‘This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mikiel Anton Vassalli, who fought for Malta to gain independence from the Knights, and is considered to be the father of the Maltese language.

‘A controversial figure in his day, he was imprisoned both by the Knights and the English due to his radical intellectual position. His vision of a liberated Malta was not appreciated by his contemporaries, who didn’t believe that Malta could survive independently and who preferred to let foreigners rule the island.

‘Cittadin Malti takes on this tale of revolution and betrayal, transforming it into a spectacle that attempts to portray the figure of Vassalli through a contemporary lens.’

In a year when Malta’s national identity is a recurring topic among both cultural and political circles, one can perhaps hardly blame Azzopardi for opting to delve into the socio-political, thematic aspects that emanate from the play – penned by Tyrone Grima – rather than its narrative mechanics.

One thing he picks up early on during our chat is the disappointing – and in his view, still enduring – tendency to glorify Malta’s hakkiema (foreign rulers).

“This will probably get me lynched” – he constantly challenges me to “quote [him] on this” – “but I think we should change the Maltese national anthem – it also glorifies the ‘hakkiem’, and I don’t think we need to feed that anymore,” he says, swiveling back into how Vassalli fits into all this.

“We find him at a time when the Knights – like the French aristocracy – are at their most decadent, when the Maltese peasant is downtrodden… here’s a man who decides to become a priest, takes his vows, and then doesn’t go through with it… so there’s already some stigma there. But then he commits what is perceived by many to be the biggest sin of all: he dares to call Malta ‘a Nation’…”

This appears to be the central root of the drama that powers Cittadin Vassalli as a production. Azzopardi firmly believes that the Maltese lost out an opportunity for genuine emancipation when they spurned Napoleon in favour of the Knights.

“Everyone makes a big thing about how they would loot churches and so on… but if you look closely, Maltese churches were even holding auctions for some of these artifacts,” Azzopardi says, insisting that history remains skewed towards the Knights because of what he perceives to be an unfortunately hardwired Maltese trait, that of “always looking for someone to be ruled under”.

So Vassalli is positioned as the ‘perfect heretic’ in this context – a seeker of unfettered national freedom whose efforts were tragically underappreciated. Azzopardi twists the knife further by suggesting that, even though we might technically be an independent nation, the two-party system ensures that our intellectual space is always cluttered with petty political conflict.

“In a sense, the political parties are our ‘hakkiema’ because all they do is foment conflict. They don’t free us – they lock us in constant conflict.”

Picking up on the key strand of Vassalli’s reputation, Azzopardi claims that “it’s ultimately our language which truly unites us”.

“And just like we filled full houses for Jiena Nhobb, Inti Thobb… and just as Gensna managed to do the same, since it’s a Maltese-language music festival – I’m confident that this production will once again prove that the Maltese have a hunger for stories which are truly Maltese…”


Cittadin Vassalli will be staged at the Manoel Theatre, Valletta between April 11 and 13