Embarking on the Odyssey… in Maltese | Jes Camilleri and Paul Portelli

We speak to Jes Camilleri and Paul Portelli of the Theatre Anon crew, as they embark on ‘Ir-Ritorn’, an ambitious Maltese-language take on Homer’s Odyssey aimed at children, which will be taking place at the Malta Maritime Museum in Birgu as part of the Malta Arts Festival.

The cast of Ir-Ritorn, from left: Pierre Stafrace, Jes Camilleri, Paul Portelli, Liliana Portelli and Charlotte Stafrace
The cast of Ir-Ritorn, from left: Pierre Stafrace, Jes Camilleri, Paul Portelli, Liliana Portelli and Charlotte Stafrace

How did you set about adapting Homer to a Maltese audience?

Jes Camilleri: As Theatre Anon we had been contemplating a number of ideas for a children’s theatre piece. When Chris Gatt first suggested that we should try adapting Homer’s Odyssey, we thought he was joking because we all thought it would be too complex, too long and too adult for children. However we soon realised that deep within the complexity of the piece were a number of unforgettable stories that would capture the imagination of any child. So we looked at the essential storylines within the different episodes and then we chose those that we felt were the most memorable and lent themselves to dramatisation. We had also decided at an early stage that the piece would be in Maltese as we felt that it could be a way of making the piece more appealing to a wide spectrum of Maltese children.

What elements of Homer’s Odyssey in particular are ‘Maltese’, do you think? How did you highlight this aspect?

JC: We did not try to make our adaptation about a specific place or time as we felt the stories in themselves were both timeless and universal, so although the show is in Maltese it can resonate to any audience regardless of nationality. For example, the fact that Gozo is the island that everybody associates with Calypso’s tale is purely incidental and we do not try to make a point of illustrating it to give it a local connection. Having said that, however, the stories and the characters resonate strongly with an audience coming from a small Mediterranean island steeped in a strong maritime tradition like Malta and therefore we felt that staging the piece at the Maritime Museum made perfect sense.

Do you think we need this kind of theatre is necessary in Malta; that addresses Maltese identity and culture in a more subtle and fantastical way than all-out political/topical theatre?

JC: Fantasy allows the viewer to disregard factual possibilities and be transported to realms that open up new possibilities rather than simply strengthen already held beliefs. It stops the viewer getting too hung up with asking, “Can this have ever happened?”, “Is this trying to make a point?” and, “Do I agree with the point being made?” Theatre Anon were never about “sending a message” simply because very often we are not 100% sure ourselves about our own viewpoints. It is this self-doubt that allows us to look for creative possibilities rather than try to preach any form of certainty. An “all-out political theatre” very often ends up preaching to the converted and hardens the beliefs of the detractors.

What were some of the main challenges of the production so far? How would you say it compares to other Theatre Anon productions – most notably Ospizio, which also draws from Maltese heritage and culture?

Paul Portelli: The islands are a stage, not only a pretty film set. However underneath the surface, if we look hard enough, we can begin to unearth and dig up the stories. We can begin to find our voice.
We need to find the courage to tear ourselves away from the safe, cosmetic zones of pretence and affected performance and get underneath the skin of all that is happening or is meant to be happening around us. We need to become relevant.  
In Ospizio we dared to abandon the safety of our comfort zones and we began a process which we hope to return to again. 

Ir-Ritorn will be staged between July 23 and 25. For more information log on to www.maltaartsfestival.org