Welcome to the madhouse | Lee-N Abela

They say that not all those who wander are lost, but are all those who aren’t imprisoned free? IGGY FENECH chats to performer Lee-N Abela about playing the part of an 80-year-old woman in Alfred Buttigieg’s new, controversial and eye-opening play, Mela Hawn Xi Manikomju? 

We’re all mad here… Lee-N Abela in Alfred Buttigieg’s play, Mela Hawn Xi Manikomju?
We’re all mad here… Lee-N Abela in Alfred Buttigieg’s play, Mela Hawn Xi Manikomju?

by Iggy Fenech

We often use the word ‘blessed’ when it comes to people living longer. And why wouldn’t we? We could die as babies or children, from misjudging how drunk we are to drive, from an illness, from an accident or at someone’s hands. Many, in fact, are the perils we have evade to make it out alive at the end of every day, so living to a ripe, old age is indeed quite the miracle.

But does life ever stop being worth living? And if so, when? When we retire? When we can no longer do everyday tasks like we used to? When the world just doesn’t need our talents anymore?

It’s all a bit of a tug of war, between staying alive and staying relevant – and that’s exactly the sentiment behind Alfred Buttigieg’s latest, original play, Mela Hawn Xi Manikomju? And, as you can expect from a play entitled ‘Do You Take Us For Some Madhouse?’, you can rest assured that the controversy is ample, yet so are the laughs and the thought-provoking moments.

The story doesn’t revolve around people in a mental institution though, but around four elderly ladies in a retirement home – a sort of gilded prison which the over-rational society they live in, their families and time have forced them to enter. Each woman faces her own reality but in very similar circumstances.

“My character is a boisterous, street-wise, foul-mouthed and unforgiving 80-year-old woman with a razor-sharp mind. Life has left her feeling very bitter and frustrated. She’s got no aims or ambitions outside this rehabilitation centre; nothing to look forward to, except for her cigarette escapades,” explains Lee-N Abela, who will be playing the part of Lina.

“She’s a troubled woman, living in a hospital and she is just not happy. I can relate to her liberal ways and her outspoken personality but I’ve found it very challenging to tap into her dark bitterness and the underlying pain she is carrying in her heart. Lina lost her passion in and for life, and instead of bettering herself, she constantly self-destructs, pulling everyone down with her.”

Lee-N has been in the industry for 15 years, and has played parts in Alfred Buttigieg’s Ir-Rewwixta tal-Qassisin, Carolyn Gage’s The Second Coming of Joan of Arc, and Samuel Beckett’s Not I here in Malta. Yet she has also had a flourishing career abroad, where she’s had roles in Strindberg’s Miss Julie alongside Juliette Binoche at The Barbican Centre, and in David Erdos’s direction of Pinter’s Landscape at The Cockpit Theatre, and even directed a sold-out performance of Nick Brown’s Sister for the Moon, which formed part of the Camden Fringe Festival.

Yet, when I asked if there was anything particularly challenging about playing the part of Lina, she immediately mentioned her age. Of course, as many may assume, it’s always easier to play an age you’ve been than an age you haven’t, mostly because the mind frame you need to put yourself in is something you just can’t tap into at that point. But Lee-N is definitely up to that challenge.

“When I read the script, it really spoke to me. I am familiar with Alfred’s work, so I kind of had an inkling that it was going to be a great, controversial, meaty piece of work,” she explains. “This tragic-comedy play is very real, hard-hitting and captivating. It’s raw and funny, and we believe that everyone will connect with the characters for various reasons. It’s a beautiful bittersweet story where people will laugh and think how will we end up in our golden age?”

Lee-N will be joined on stage by Lilian Pace, Ninette Micallef and Teresa Gauci, who will be playing the parts of Guzeppa, Mena and Gerit respectively, as well as Roberta Briffa, Andre Mangion and Charles Sammut. The direction is in the hands of Tyrone Grima, a trained actor-cum-director known for his work in Bariona (2010), Bwani (2013) and Children of a Lesser God (2015), among others.

With the play kicking off in less than three weeks’ time, rehearsals are well on their way, of course. But when I ask Lee-N about them she tells me that she’s been ‘sworn to secrecy’ to not release any of the details – I, for one, find that incredibly intriguing. What could they be up to?

I guess we’ll have to wait to find out.

Alfred Buttigieg’s Mela Hawn Xi Manikomju? Will be performed at Spazju Kreattiv (St James Cavalier) on March 4, 5, 6 and 11, 12, 13 at 20:00. Tickets are at €15. Bookings:

www.kreattivita.org, 2122 3200. The play is certified 18+ and is being supported by the Malta Arts Fund