Theatre Review | Ma Rridx Immur

Working off an award-winning script by Leanne Ellul, the rubberbodies collective first stab at a ‘conventional’ play is a mixed bag, but it may prove to be a useful stepping stone for its young playwright.

Ruth Borg and Josette Ciappara • Photo by Tumer Gencturk
Ruth Borg and Josette Ciappara • Photo by Tumer Gencturk

It’s become something of a running joke that any Maltese work of art with ambitions towards posterity must be a ‘downer’. Think back on the literature and poetry you've covered in school, or any ‘classic’ Maltese plays you may have watched. Like church homilies and Christopher Nolan films, they seem to be resistant to any humorous under-cutting, operating squarely in a tragic mode throughout.

Francis Ebejer Prize winning play Ma Rridx Immur (I Don’t Want to Go) – penned by Leanne Ellul and put up by rubberbodies collective at the Manoel Theatre last week under the direction of rubberbodies founder Jimmy Grima – insists on bringing this trend into the new generation, albeit allowing for a refreshingly earnest – and youthful – voice to pepper its ultimately flawed structure.

Effectively an orphan, the 23-year-old Casey (Ruth Borg) leaves a troubled home situation to live with her boyfriend, Alfio (Ryan Cutajar) and his grandmother (Josette Ciappara). Though the couple are very much in love, Casey grows increasingly frustrated with Alfio’s reluctance to find a job, leaving her burdened with supporting them on her own. However she finds solace in her best and oldest friend Samantha (Marta Vella), who lives alone with her loyal pug, and who always finds time to be a shoulder for Casey to cry on.

When Casey is diagnosed with a terminal illness, her past returns to the fore: a mother who died too young, an emotionally abusive father whom she was eager to leave. We follow Casey as she faces the prospect of oblivion, and becomes gradually more philosophical about the process.

Coupled with the central tragedy and a neurotic response to family history (Alfio is haunted by his father too – who devolved into aggressive insanity during his final years), there is a Gothic undercurrent to the whole experience, with a matrix of anguished lives making up the – manually rotated, and ever shifting – scenery.

But Ellul’s script doesn’t quite amp up these elements, opting instead for a tender, ‘confessional’ approach that is part Sylvia Plath, part teenage girl diary. A tighter approach to plotting and better-amplified grasp of its thematic connections may have served the play better (the central couple’s common paternal trauma is never linked in a satisfying way) but Ellul’s storytelling never once rings false, betraying a genuine affection for the playwright’s characters and a dogged interest in seeing their emotional journeys through.

Central to all this is Ruth Borg’s performance, and it's fortunate that the young but prolific actress steals the show. Direct, throaty delivery belies her fawn-like appearance, which is in turn morphed into an appropriately disquieting – almost ‘alien’ – shape once the inevitable bouts of chemotherapy begin. Spared of having to adopt the often self-conscious (at best) and cringe-worthy (at worst) BBC English accent common to most imported drama staged locally, Borg appears entirely comfortable in the role, balancing out sadness with humour, fatalism with hope – the kind of resignation that the Maltese would  punctuate with “heqq”.

The same can hardly be said about Cutajar’s Alfio, however, whose loudly rolled-rs jar with what is meant to be a clearly working class setting, and whose line delivery is riddled by that other beast of Maltese theatre and TV: the sing-song voice. Ciappara’s Nanna Mary is an instantly appealing character, and the veteran actress imbues her with natural warmth that’s hard not to like. But though we appreciate her as a kind of relatable comic relief, her dialogue often amounts to little more than boilerplate clichés spouted by the well-meaning elderly. Vella – who also happens to be Ciappara’s daughter – doesn’t exactly venture out of her comfort zone, playing yet another feisty-female that offers up both pragmatic advice and her own dollop of comic relief. But her one scene with Ciappara is genuinely affecting, allowing both comedic foils (such as they are) to pull back and let some real sadness seep through.

Notably, this play also marks the rubberbodies collective’s first venture into more ‘conventional’ fare, as the company had previously made a name for itself with its visually striking and non-verbal showcases of physical theatre. Though comparatively minimal this time around, trademark flourishes courtesy of long-standing rubberbodies prop-master Matthew Pandolfino are still very much in evidence. A descending MRI scanner is the clear piece de resistance, but a puff of green smoke snaking at the edges of the stage and signaling a raspy, aggressive voice-over by Casey’s father was inspired too.

It’s a shame that the ending allows the drama to simply peter out, instead of delivering a genuinely dramatic pay-off. Nobody would want a contrived twist to cap it all off, of course, but Casey’s journey feels a bit under-served by the denouement she’s given. Given how Ellul has her accumulating and spouting poetry and philosophy as the end of the line edges closer and closer, an ending that collates this bit of character development in a more satisfying way would have been welcome.

Promoted in a media blitzkrieg of the like the ‘indie’ rubberbodies collective has never seen before, and which also included the endorsement of governmental cultural bodies and politicians, Ma Rridx Immur appears positioned as the forefront of local theatrical produce: the ‘Premju Francis Ebejer’ stamp seemingly endowing it with instant legitimacy. But it’s hampered by a lack of real competition and an apparent reluctance to batter the script into submission by the kind of aggressive workshopping and/or redrafting that’s expected from any bona fide creative writing endeavour.

There are many infrastructural cultural changes apparently in the pipeline for the country. Let’s hope that a more judicious approach to original theatre is also penciled in as a priority… for the sake of promising playwrights like Leanne Ellul, if nothing else.

Ma Rridx Immur was a collaboration between the rubberbodies collective and the Manoel Theatre, and was supported by Arts Council Malta

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