The little national theatre that could? | Kenneth Zammit Tabona

Speaking about his new role as the Manoel Theatre’s new Artistic Director, Kenneth Zammit Tabona tells us he is optimistic about the national theatre’s future, despite its relatively diminutive size and small – but persistent – problems.

Kenneth Zammit Tabona: Photo by Ray Attard
Kenneth Zammit Tabona: Photo by Ray Attard

While he’s been involved with Malta’s national theatre in some executive capacity ever since the early ‘90s, this year the watercolourist and music critic Kenneth Zammit Tabona officially takes on the mantle of the Manoel Theatre’s Artistic Director.

When reminded of those “antediluvian days before email” – when he would occupy posts at the Manoel Theatre management committee on and off – Zammit Tabona recalls how he would plan the Theatre’s programme by “gluing foolscaps together”.

“Today life has become so much faster. But also, so much easier…”

Despite the changing times however, Zammit Tabona doesn’t consider this post to be all that new a development for his career – if anything it is simply a consolidation of his previous work.

“While I’m a watercolourist first and foremost, I would always somehow gravitate towards music and performance. Though I survived working in a bank for thirty years, as day job… don’t ask me how…”

His familiarity with and affection for the venue becomes clear pretty early on during our conversation, as does his optimism for the Manoel’s near future, once he begins to drop hints as to what’s in store for the coming year’s programme. Bolstered by the enduring success of the Valletta International Baroque Festival – of which he is also artistic director – Zammit Tabona is also prepared to admit that the historic venue does have its fair share of infrastructural problems.

“One thing which we’re well aware of – and which has even been pointed out by experts for us – is the ‘dryness’ of the acoustics in the theatre. By this I mean that, say, when you clap, there’s no resonance, it doesn’t go anyway – it’s why sometimes when you’re listening to a singer and you ask yourself, ‘Why is there no echo?’ In a church for example, you’ll get too much – at the Manoel, you get too little. So this is something we definitely have to think about.”

One of the ways in which Zammit Tabona suggests this to be tackled is to, first of all, “change that ghastly floor”.

“The only way to address this is to make the floor wooden, so it can act as a soundboard,” Zammit Tabona says, also flagging up a more basic concern.

“Most people will tell you that the Manoel is like a freezer in winter and a casserole dish in summer,” which can really hurt the venue’s programming plans since as we all know, the Maltese summer has a tendency to stretch to September and even October – during which time the Manoel should be able to comfortably set about staging both dramatic and musical performances.

The main underlying challenge that Zammit Tabona faces when it comes to the day-to-day operations of the Manoel Theatre is one simple, fundamental fact.

“People forget that, as it seats no more than roughly 500 people, the Manoel is a tiny theatre… but one which has the job of a national theatre. So it has to be all things to all men. This means that putting together a programme for it sometimes feels like putting together a complex jigsaw puzzle, under duress.”

“Maintaining high standards,” is the key priority for Tabona, however. “That is always the main departure point. I have a small team, but somehow we manage.”

Clearly proud of its success, Tabona regularly brings up the Baroque Festival as an example of how a locally produced musical initiative of – yes – high standards can work in a Maltese context.

Debuting in January 2013 and taking place across various venues in Valletta, the Baroque Festival maximised Malta’s tourism potential – particularly welcome during January, which is a slower, ‘shoulder’ month for the industry – by inviting both local and international musicians to perform in a no-brainer venue for the genre: the through-and-through Baroque city of Valletta.

This harmonious marriage between concept and venue, coupled with the Festival’s very real economic return – it attracted visitors from all over the world, and Zammit Tabona says that this year’s edition made €3.7 million from tour operators alone – acts as a reference point for the way Zammit Tabona aims to tackle the Manoel Theatre’s programme too.

“Let’s face it, the reason why the Baroque Festival will keep happening is because I’ve gained the trust of government and other investors. Of course, culture is not a money-making machine by its very nature, but we need to be sensitive to the realities of how much it costs to put something up.”

Both a challenge for the theatre itself and something of a personal crusade for Zammit Tabona is the Manoel’s annual opera. Given that it’s such demanding genre – incorporating as it does music, theatre and elaborate costume and stage design – opera isn’t accommodating to the comparatively meagre resources available in Malta’s local scene.

Zammit Tabona is frustrated that, due to its limitations, Malta can’t seem to be able to ride an international wave.

“Opera is on the rise in the US and the UK – but we’re lagging behind. Sure, it’s partly because we don’t have a proper opera house, but that’s not the only reason – there’s also a lack of background knowledge,” Tabona says, taking a swipe at glaring shortcomings in the local educational system as far as culture is concerned: students who have never visited St John’s Co-Cathedral (and who believe it to be in Mdina)…

“Honestly, I think the idea that Systems of Knowledge is only taught at Sixth Form is misguided – it should start at age five, if anything, and then you how the saying goes: with a spoonful of sugar, the medicine will go down. That is the only way to do it.”

With a sneaky segue worthy of an experienced newspaper columnist, he then tells me that this is precisely what the Manoel Theatre is doing with its Toi Toi initiative – a series of regularly organised concerts which set out to introduce classical music to young children.

With regards to drama, Zammit Tabona is very happy that the Manoel has its own in-house ‘mini-academy’ for local actors: the Teatru Manoel Youth Theatre (TMYT).

However, one key lacuna he wishes to address in the near future is the lack of classic plays on the programme. Mentioning that an upcoming production of Guze Chetcuti’s Il-Kuluri tal-Perlini as a step in the right direction, he nonetheless remains baffled as to why we don’t have a regular drip of “plays that are also literature” on our theatrical schedules.

“Why can’t a local production company put up, say, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible? Why don’t we have production companies who’ll put up a Strinberg, an Ibsen? Even Shakespeare – why not? This idea that we have, that Shakespeare can only be held outdoors – and specifically, at San Anton Gardens, is frankly a bit crackers.”

At the end of the day, Zammit Tabona acknowledges that “the limitations of the Manoel Theatre are there”.

“I mean it’s small, it has its drawbacks but so far we’ve manage to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear year in and year out. Hopefully by the end of next year they won’t say we’ve made a pig’s dinner!”