The importance of being young | Andy Smith

When a group of young actors set about rehearsing Oscar Wilde’s perennial comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, things get weird, fast. We speak to British director Andy Smith about his upcoming take on Anthony Horowitz’s A Handbag, which he will be directing for Masquerade – marking his 15th year of collaborations with the local theatre school and production company

Andy Smith: “The audience will find it hysterical, but then feel guilty about laughing”
Andy Smith: “The audience will find it hysterical, but then feel guilty about laughing”

What attracted you to this play in particular and Horowitz in general?

A Handbag is a short play (only one hour running time) but is totally fascinating from start to finish. I love the way that the characters slowly reveal themselves – yet we never know their exact circumstances or situation.

The play is hilariously funny, yet very dark. I’m sure the audience with find it hysterical, yet might feel a little guilty at laughing.

The play focuses on six young people – all in their early 20s – trying to stage a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The task seems an impossible one, yet they plod on and, in doing so, allow us to witness the tensions and conflicts, anxieties and uncertainties and real fears of each character.

I think Horowitz is a hugely talented writer. He is better known as a screenwriter and has received real acclaim in this field. His dialogue is beautifully crafted and he manages to avoid making any of the characters predictable.

His weaving together of the themes within The Importance Of Being Earnest and his actual play is remarkable. But bear in mind that you don’t have to know The Importance Of Being Earnest to enjoy the play.

What would you say is the main tension in this play and how do you intend to bring it out?

The main tension is between the six characters. There are no moments within the play when any of them really connect and they are constantly at odds with each other.

During rehearsals the feeling of tension was tangible. The actors would end each rehearsal with total exhaustion.

We hope to create a mood of impending danger. This is constantly bubbling under the surface. The play is not cosy. The play is not comfortable, in fact the contents of this ‘Handbag’ are far from safe! None of the actors ever have a moment when they can rest within the production. I think that this will drive it.

Could you tell us a little about your long-standing relationship with Masquerade and how it has evolved over time?

I first collaborated with Masquerade in 2000 to lead their innovative ‘Summer Experience’. What struck me was the passion and commitment that both [Masquerade founders] Tony and Veronica Bezzina had to the arts. This has now moved in to a new gear with the opening of M.Space and the Blue Box Theatre.  You could say I became immediately hooked... Since then, I have worked with Masquerade very, very frequently; giving workshops and directing such plays as A Chorus Of Disapproval (Alan Ayckbourn) and The History Boys (Alan Bennett).

I like Masquerade’s insistence on quality and the importance placed on the value of the individual. Working with Masquerade just feels right... I suppose that’s why I’ve done it for so long!

What do you make of the young cast of A Handbag? Have you worked with some of them before and why do you find them suitable for their assigned roles?

In a word... astonishing! And I really do mean that. I work in a way that really analyses the text. We examine, in minute detail, every word spoken in the play. The cast relished this working method and the level of intellectual engagement is staggering. On top of this, each actor has developed their character, and brought it to life, in a way that has surpassed my wildest dreams.

I have only worked with one member of the cast before on The History Boys, and that is Joseph Zammit. He is a joy to work with, totally able, totally professional in everything he does and hugely sensitive.

As an ‘outsider’ who has worked in Malta quite often, what do you make of the local theatrical scene and what would you change about it?

Over 15 years I have seen the emergence of more theatre companies and much more arts activity in general. The arts are vibrant in Malta. While I was rehearsing I had the opportunity to see the brilliant Etnika who performed at Blue Box and... wow! Amazing... something I will never forget.

There is a wider variety of work being presented now. Directors and actors are taking more chances and pushing out the limits. Every year there seem more and more productions being staged. I think M Space is a brilliant addition to the theatre scene in Malta. It reminds me very much of being in London’s Donmar Warehouse, which is one of my favourite theatre spaces.

If I could change anything it would be finding a way of more people seeing theatre and valuing what they have, and realising that much of it is of the very highest quality. Let’s hope they come and see A Handbag... it’s a start.

A Handbag will be staged at M Space, Msida on October 2-4 at 20:00

More in Theatre & Dance