Theatre director quits play after row with Mario Philip Azzopardi

“This is not just about artistic integrity, it’s also about work conditions and artistic rights”, theatre director Sean Buhagiar says as he departs the play Habbilni Ha Nirbah, produced by his long-term production partner Mario Philip Azzopardi • Executive producer says ‘artistic differences’ are ‘common occurrences’, bemoans them being made public

Sean Buhagiar has been a partner with Mario Philip Azzopardi's Stagun Teatru Malti since its inception
Sean Buhagiar has been a partner with Mario Philip Azzopardi's Stagun Teatru Malti since its inception

Established theatre director Sean Buhagiar has quit the direction of Stagun Teatru Malti’s latest play after heated arguments with Executive Producer Mario Philip Azzopardi. When contacted, sources told MaltaToday that Azzopardi – who only attended the first full rehearsal of the show on Sunday, five days before opening night – threw several tantrums while kicking the set and shouting vulgarly.

Sources also said that Azzopardi threatened to sue Buhagiar if he does not follow his orders, aggressively declaring that Buhagiar should “obey”.

This follows another incident where last Monday renowned set designer Adrian Mamo left the production after Azzopardi flared-up and ditched the set before it was completed. Azzopardi never replaced the designer, opting instead to design the set himself. Speaking to MaltaToday, Mamo insisted that his departure wasn't down to emotional reasons. 

"I'm too old to be offended," Mamo quipped, before adding, "it's just that by the time [Azzopardi] had finished with his rant about my set, there was nothiing left for me to do. Basically, the set was comprised of five different elements, and he wanted them all removed. Now, the play is currently in its production week, so it's impossible to just start afresh." 

Mamo added that, "to be honest, I'm not even sure Azzopardi understood what my set is all about. So I just decided to leave the production. I've done around 50 productions in my time, and this has never happened to me". 

Mario Philip Azzopardi also serves as the Artistic Director of the Valletta 2018 Foundation. Azzopardi was the director of 'Courage to Vote' - a Labour Party campaign television advert which depicted a 'pepe' family fighting over their daughter's annoucement to vote for the Labour Party ahead of the 2013 general elections. However following backlash to the advert - which inspired a parody video by comedy group Lamp Stamp - a proposed second advert was never filmed.

He told The Times in a reaction to Buhagiar's depature: “Artistic differences are constant in the theatre. Mr Buhagiar is obviously very inexperienced in the way things work. I am surprised and shocked that he would abandon the show at this stage.”

Buhagiar has also been a producer and shareholder in Staġun Teatru Malti since 2013. The past three years have seen STM establish itself as a prominent theatre company on the island, with Habbilni Ha Nirbah – a pulled-from-the-headlines story about teenage girls competing to get pregnant on a dare – being their ninth production in a span of three years.

Following this rift, he stated that he will be leaving the company with immediate effect.

When contacted, Buhagiar stated, “My heart goes out to the wonderful actors, the amazing crew and our fantastic author. I’m sorry to have to leave, but I cannot work in these conditions. With a heavy heart, I am letting go of the production and Staġun Teatru Malti”.

Buhagiar, who has also directed past successes Jiena Nħobb, Inti Tħobb and Sibna ż-Żejt, will not attend any more rehearsals. “I will only allow the production to use my unfinished work because I wish for it to go ahead out of respect for my cast, the author and the executives at the Manoel Theatre, however I need the public to know my vision is incomplete and that I do not agree with the final product. This is not just about artistic integrity, it’s also about work conditions and artistic rights” he stressed.

Ħabbilni Ħa Nirbaħ opens this Friday at the Manoel Theatre. 

Executive producer says ‘artistic differences’ are ‘common occurrences’, bemoans them being made public

Executive producer Mario Philip Azzopardi has said that it is “a pity that the private internal artistic differences of a private company have to be aired publicly.”

In a statement, Azzopardi said that “differences are common occurrences in show biz and are better settled in private not in the media.”

Azzopardi said that Buhagiar is a producer of the show, not the only producer, and he pointed out that as such, he answers to the executive producer.

“I bear all the financial risk of the production, and the signatories to the co production are the Manoel's CEO and myself, alone,” he said, insisting that Buhagiar had “never paid a cent” for the shares of the company.

“This affords me prerogatives, responsibilities and interests beyond Buhagiar's remit,” he said.

Azzopardi said that he had produced eleven successful works in Maltese over the last eight years, and that Buhagiar was his assistant in the last six shows.

“Whatever happens between artists, the show has to go on and is never abandoned, but unfortunately Buhagiar abandoned the cast, crew, author and my investment,” he said, adding that this had never happened to him in the past fifty years he had been involved in show business.

“It is at this point that I threatened Buhagiar with a lawsuit in the eventuality that he abandons the show,” he added.

Speaking about issues with the set, Azzopardi said that he had not been satisfied by the result so far.

“What I saw was not what I had been made to expect, and it was way too high.”

Azzopardi went on to explain that the Manoel Theatre technicians had warned them that this was unpractical, unwieldy and dangerous.

“I was promised changes, but what was eventually changed was ineffectual and my instructions were ignored.”

Admitting that he had reacted very angrily using language “that is not the best”, he insisted that the language was “nothing different from what Buhagiar is accustomed to using himself.”

Azzopardi explained that  another feature placed on the stage had the actors complaining and restrained, and that this was not the first time that he had had to push for set adjustments during his career.

“There were many other elements in the set that simply were wrong, unprofessional and downright awful.”

Azzopardi reiterated that in the world of show business, these conflicts happen all the time and that “tension is a hazard of the job.”

“I respect Buhagiar's talent, which I have helped develop over the last few years, promoting him to jobs he had never held before, including the production management of three movies when he had absolutely no experience,” he said, adding that he had also given Buhagiar all his directorial jobs as well as leading roles because he is a vey talented man.

“Now he may be of the opinion that he is beyond reproach and I am truly sorry that he thinks this way,” he said, admitting that he had not been successful in teaching him artistic humility and the obvious fact that the one who underwrites the costs has the last say, on practically everything.

“My intent and actions are meant to safeguard the quality, professionalism and value of the production no matter how much conflict it may cause, and sacrifice it demands.”