Laughing at the terrorists | Steve Casaletto

Theatre director Steve Casaletto speaks to us about Mellow Drama’s latest production, Henry Adam’s black comedy The People Next Door. Written in a white heat at the beginning of the second Gulf War, Casaletto argues that the black comedy is now more relevant than ever.

Clockwise from top: Matthew Ben Attard, Alan Paris, Andre Agius and Marylou Coppini
Clockwise from top: Matthew Ben Attard, Alan Paris, Andre Agius and Marylou Coppini
Steve Casaletto
Steve Casaletto

What led you to choose this particular play?

I was looking for a good comedy. Ideally, one which was going to make the audience laugh but yet still have a good story behind it. You know: some good characters, an interesting back story and ideally something which was topical.

When I first read the play I was pleased that it had all of these. As the months have passed it has actually become more and more relevant and to be honest, I don’t think I could have chosen a better play for where the world is today.

Do you think its tone and themes will resonate with a Maltese audience?

Definitely.  The fact is, it’s a very British piece and we as Maltese seem to have a greater affinity for British comedy rather than American, I feel. Also, the ideas of people being different and being judged because of it is something that we as a country are still getting used to. So I really do think we can “get” this play, in a way we wouldn’t have been able to in the past.

Is it tough to get the balance right for black comedy? And do you think Maltese audiences are attuned to it?

It is and it isn’t. I think the main thing is to find the characters of the parts being played early on and really fix those into your head and the heads of the actors playing them. Then make sure that we play the parts as true to these characters as we can. Sorry to employ a cliché, but if you always “keep it real” and keep those things in mind, you can have a lot of fun with a black comedy, especially if it’s well written and the author has got the balance right. The quick changes from the dramatic to the absurd are the best bits of black comedy, and I think can give the audience a fantastic experience because you can be crying one minute and laughing the next.

I think the Maltese theatre-going audience is actually quite attuned to most things nowadays. We are exposed to so many different styles and varieties of theatre that I think that there is an audience out there for almost all types of theatre. Having said that, we at Mellow Drama believe that comedy is what people really want to see, and that’s what we always strive to put on: a great show which everyone will enjoy. The good thing about comedy is there are a huge amount of varieties – of which black comedy is just one.

What do you think makes this particular story compelling, apart from the terrorist angle?

The characters. I know its a very standard answer, but it really is true in this case. We have a young guy, Nigel, who is wasting away his life getting stoned most of the day and his whole life is thrown into turmoil by Phil, the tough London copper who is out to catch a terrorist before he can cause any damage. Meanwhile, the old lady next door is butting in left right and centre while the young boy from upstairs is trying to get a way from his horrid mother. All strong characters, mixed together by a talented writer who knows how to make you laugh.

How would you describe the dynamic between the cast? How do you go about choosing the actors, and how do you think they complement their respective roles?

The cast are made up of four different age groups, yet they all – from the eldest to the youngest – tackled the piece very seriously, but at the same time with an eye on the fun in the script and in the rehearsal process.

To be honest, when it comes to choosing a cast, I have done it in different ways for almost every production. Some through open auditions, some with a few phone calls to the people I have in mind. It’s always different, and it depends largely on the play. In this case, after the first read and three calls, I had the main three characters tied in. What I was left with was the search for the final character, who needed to be young and therefore by definition relatively inexperienced and in the main “unknown” to the theater audiences.  Here I had to rely on the excellent theatre schools we have on the island and asked around until I was given a few names that I could audition and then I had my quartet complete.

Marylu Coppini, I have worked with many time before both as a director and actor, so I know what levels of experience and professionalism she brings to her roles. Plus, she isn’t afraid to let her hair down when necessary for a good laugh so I knew she would suit the role perfectly. Alan Paris and I have been friends for longer than I care to remember (or at least will admit to) and again, we have worked together in many productions over the years so again I was making a very safe bet in having him in the role of Phil the Copper. Andre Agius I had never actually worked with before but he has done some excellent work over the last few years so I was in relatively safe waters with him. The main challenge for Andre was going to be that this was his first real comedic role and as Nigel, he has had a fantastic part to kick off with. Matthew Attard is the most inexperienced and youngest at 17. He has to play slightly younger as his character is supposed to be 15, but he still has to go through all the emotions you can imagine, and is doing a great job too.

How would you describe this production in terms of the history of Mellow Drama so far?

Mellow Drama prides itself on comedy and has had some fantastic hits over the years. Keeping Up Appearances, Yes Prime Minister, God’s Official, The Complete Works Of Shakespeare Abridged, The 39 Steps and Legally Blonde The Musical –  to name just the bigger shows that we have done. All have been successful and all have been quite different with the main theme being to entertain the audience and make them laugh.

The People Next Door is no different – in that its a comedy – but at the same time is quite different in that the story is very real and topical today, and it does make you think as well as laugh. The play that it most resembles to in our backlog is God’s Official, in that it has the same dark story but yet brings out the absurd and the funny out of the tragedy of the situation.

The People Next Door will be playing at M Space, Msida between February 13-15, 20-22.