‘What triumphs in the end is humanity’ | Mikhail Basmadjan

Ahead of the bilingual performance of Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa – staged in its overseas debut by Unifaun Theatre at St James Cavalier – TEODOR RELJIC speaks to actor Mikhail Basmadjan about embodying a British fisherman in this immigration-themed drama that is deeply relevant to Malta

Mikhail Basmadjan and Pia Zammit • Photo by Christine Joan Muscat Azzopardi
Mikhail Basmadjan and Pia Zammit • Photo by Christine Joan Muscat Azzopardi

What were your expectations going into this production? Were you excited to be cast?

I am always excited to be in a Unifaun play. I have worked with Adrian Buckle many times over the years and every play has been different, exciting and challenging for both actors and audiences – there are no limitations to genre, and the parts I have played have been great emotional journeys, as I feel theatre should be, for the actors first and foremost.

I did not have any specific expectations, rather some reservations regarding this play due to the subject matter being too ‘in the flesh’, with so many on this island constantly expressing negative emotions, almost hatred, towards the subject of migration.

However when I read the script I realised that this was a play about humanity, love and hope, without judgement of right, wrong, black or white. My personal expectation is to communicate this humanity as best I can, without trying to preach.

What kind of research did you do to prepare for this role, and how would you describe his journey?

Unfortunately the research is all around us – all you need to do is watch the news and the grim reality of the situation is revealed.  The difference is that media rarely highlight the emotional side of the situation and viewers forget, becoming somewhat desensitized.  Watching this play will evoke the very emotions that many people do not want to face, believing that there is nothing that they can do from their side – and that all must be left up to the ‘authorities’.

The journey of Stefano the fisherman is a transformation – he cannot find a job, has been unemployed for three years, has a family to feed and has finally accepted a job rescuing migrants, or rather pulling migrant corpses out of the sea mostly, after the vessels capsize.

He watches the same migrants he saves step on land, full of hope – when he himself has been looking for the same hope in vain for a long time, and he feels he has more of a right to it.  He does not judge however, and instead of calling the migrants ‘niggers’, like his friend Salvo does, slowly manages to see the good in these people and eventually establishes a unique friendship with a migrant from Mali called Modibo. 

In a selfless act Stefano offers to go out looking for Modibo’s wife who is lost at sea… he does not have to do this as he is risking his own life to save another ‘nigger’ – so why does he do it?  If audience members ask themselves this question they will inevitably feel a pin prick somewhere deep inside their hearts.

The topical implications of this particular play are obvious. But do you approach this material differently to any other play you would do? If so, how?

In other plays the characters are usually fictitious, even though perhaps based on real people, alive or passed. In this play I know that during the storm scene, for instance, when I am performing on stage and my character Stefano is describing a migrant rescue operation, an actual migrant boat could be right in the middle of it somewhere in the Med, with migrants dying, and rescuers risking their lives to save them. 

This play gives us such a realistic account of the physical, emotional and spiritual domains of the migrant crisis that it is difficult to remain unmoved. Again, what triumphs in the end is humanity, which the play asks us to re-examine deep inside ourselves.  

Though the very name ‘Lampedusa’ conjures evocative images for Maltese people, the play is set in England. Do you think the local realities described in the play will still be relevant to the Maltese situation?

The part of Stefano the fisherman is very relevant in a Maltese setting, and the play can almost be called Malta. It is the part of the Denise, played by Pia Zammit, who is a debt collector in Leeds that may be somewhat different to the local setting. Denise is an immigrant who was however born and bred in Leeds, yet still she is frowned upon, spat at and discriminated against. So the similarity is that being an immigrant brings the same set of problems whether in UK or Malta.   

What do you make of the local theatre scene? What would you change about it?

Perhaps theatre must become more of a culture, as at the moment people are somewhat apathetic to it and the digital age is not really helping.  Also I have heard people who usually go to watch plays at the Catholic Institute for instance say that ‘I do not go to the Manoel Theatre as it scares me’. It has always amazed me how on such a tiny island the local theatre audience (couple of thousand at most?) are further segmented into audiences that frequent different theatre venues – eg. Manoel Theatre, St. James Cavalier, Old University in Valletta, University, Catholic Institute etc. 

Perhaps the question we need to ask is – should all those involved in theatre growth and development (actors, directors, writers, producers, authorities, etc) pull together via a long term joint educational campaign, programme or curriculum - or is the above segregation healthy? Do we need to have professional theatre in Malta, as the market is so small? Can anyone be an actor? When we talk of the National Theatre should we disregard plays in the English language?  The list of questions is endless and one could write a thesis on this subject.

Lampedusa will be staged – alternately in English and Maltese – at Spazju Kreattiv (St James Cavalier), Valletta on February 13, 14, 18, 19-21, 25-28 at 20:00. The play is directed by Herman Grech and also features Pia Zammit. The Maltese version of the play will be based on a translation by Immanuel Mifsud. Bookings and more information: http://www.kreattivita.org/