Too much of a good thing

A scabrous and necessary satire that doubles up as an object lesson on the necessity of rewrites and sharp editing, Sibna z-Zejt delights and frustrates in equal measure

The cast of Sibna z-Zejt
The cast of Sibna z-Zejt

Any society worth its salt will foster a healthy satirical tradition – the ancient Greeks can tell you that much. But the Greeks also laid down a handy law for all theatrical productions: everything that the viewer needs to see and know should take place in real-time on the stage. No background info-dumping through dialogue. No offstage plot twists. 

Wayne Flask’s Sibna z-Zejt (‘We Have Struck Oil’) makes good on the former, or at least makes a decent fist of it. But there’s serious madness in the method – to paraphrase another dramatic stalwart – and a closer adherence to the Greek template may have led to a sharper and ultimately more satisfying night at the theatre – which, to compound the show’s penchant for multimedia excess, was staged at Malta’s coveted baroque bauble, the Manoel Theatre. 

The year is 2036 and Joseph Muscat (Mario Micallef) remains Prime Minister of Malta, loyal chief-of-staff Keith Schembri (Simon Curmi) still in tow. Upon learning that a potentially lucrative deposit of oil has been located just under the Addolorata Cemetery, the unbeatable but increasingly weary PM is faced with a dilemma: go against the absurd prospect of desecrating graves to dig for oil, or give in – as ever – to the ever-powerful cadre of developers, rallying under the nefarious, Bond-villain-like Jonathan Cachia Obermeier (Peter Busuttil) and Charles dei Vassalli Polidano (Jesmond Triccas). 

But it’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t kind of situation for Muscat, since the financial power keg – leaked to the media early on by the aging PM – throws the entire country in a tailspin, with various interests (the Church, the media, a ‘heretical’ author and a right-wing pimp) collapsing on Joseph Muscat. 

The fact that the above synopsis doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface is the play’s biggest problem. Less of a satirical sucker-punch and more of a pile-up of off-colour jabs and set pieces set to music and visual accompaniment, ‘Zejt’ – directed for Stagun Teatru Malti by Sean Buhagiar – buries its narrative engine under one-off sketches that may work in isolation but that only serve to confuse and slow down the on-stage action. 

For instance, while it makes sense for the Church to be included in the fray – given that the Addolorata plot falls under their jurisdiction – and while the idea that ‘gay converter’ pastor Gordon John Manche (JP Busuttil) has now become the nexus of mainstream influence is an amusing one, ably hammed up by Busuttil, the scenes squander precious stage-time in an already bloated script. Along with often hilarious asides by Luke Dalli – serving as presenter for micro-news programme ‘Scavenger’ – these sequences would have made for excellent viral promo on YouTube and social media ahead of the production. As it stands, they become lost in the morass.

Apart from jamming the story, this leads to a bombardment of characters and perspectives that leaves the viewer with no protagonists to hold onto. Nobody is expecting cut-and-dried heroes in a satirical black comedy of this kind, but we need focused targets. While Micallef’s Joseph Muscat drifts in and out as a recurring lynchpin for the story, Flask never quite settles on whether to pitch him as villain or victim, with a jarring and lengthy monologue at the end doing nothing to clarify matters any further. 

The frustrating thing is that this play has a lot to say, and often says it well, but that it collapses under the weight of its richness. Flask’s script – brimming with great ideas and sometimes shockingly grotesque conceits – simply needed to be corralled into palatable shape before it reached the stage, and no amount of outrageous costumes, audiovisual wizardry and outré props can mask this gaping stain. 

There’s no two ways about it: Stagun Teatru Malti needed to dedicate more time and care to what was essentially a sharp, intelligent script with great potential.

But to my mind, hope is far from lost. Flask has enough material to spin off into various media, should he wish to go down that route. I’ve already mentioned one-off YouTube clips, but even a weekly webcomic (a more acerbic counterpoint to A Space Boy Dream?) could be well-served by Flask’s canny satirical eye. Whether any of these things could be monetised is, of course, a different discussion, for a different day…