Shakespeare at The Pub | Philip Leone-Ganado

An interesting experiment is afoot: local company WhatsTheirNames Theatre will be staging William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy Two Gentlemen of Verona at The Pub in Valletta. We speak to director Philip Leone-Ganado, and promises there will be drinking amid the drama… 

Joe Azzopardi and Bettina Paris in Two Gentlemen of Verona • Photo by Jacob Sammut
Joe Azzopardi and Bettina Paris in Two Gentlemen of Verona • Photo by Jacob Sammut

What led you to choose this particular Shakespeare play, and how did you decide on The Pub as a location?

The choice of the play and the choice of the venue kind of went hand in hand, in that this is ultimately a very site-specific production – we’re not just acting Shakespeare in a pub, we’re actually setting it in a pub.

The background is that my close friend and collaborator Nathan Brimmer took over The Pub in 2014 and we immediately knew we’d one day be using it as a venue. Staging Shakespeare was also a long-term goal of mine since we set up WhatsTheirNames seven years ago. The two came together when I was re-reading Two Gentlemen of Verona and the rather odd thought occurred to me that most of the scenes could conceivably take place in a pub.

The play is also possibly Shakespeare’s earliest, written in his late 20s – it’s fast, it’s funny, and it manages to fit in some quite moving moments too. It’s about the sort of stupid problems twenty-somethings face, falling in love with the wrong person, fighting with your friends, dressing up as a boy to follow your lost love into the forest… you know, standard. And if there’s a set for the comedy-drama of a twenty-something’s life, it’s a pub.

What do you think such a venue adds to the experience?

As a venue, The Pub has incredible character. And those who’ve been there know it’s a tiny hole-in-the-wall, so as we’ve often done, we’re going to be playing to a tiny audience each night (just 20, this time round). It’s going to be intimate and exciting – there’s a fair bit of audience interaction and fourth-wall breaking, especially as five actors are playing some 17 roles. And there’s drinking! In a few words, the venue brings us closer to your typical pub experience than your typical Shakespeare experience – without losing anything that makes Shakespeare Shakespeare.

On a similar note, would you say we need to push Maltese Shakespeare productions further away from the usual ‘mainstream’ venues? What would be the advantages to the Bard’s reputation in Malta, if his plays were staged in less stuffy places?

To be fair, while we’re not exactly over-fed on Shakespeare, what little we do get tends to do quite well in terms of variety of venues – especially with the outdoor tradition we’ve adopted so enthusiastically. But yes, one of my hopes with this play is that people who typically wouldn’t give Shakespeare a shot might be tempted by the fact that it’s in a pub. It’s not news to say Shakespeare has a bit of an image problem, but at the end of the day, that image is simply wrong. Anything that helps to undermine the idea of big speeches and men in tights is a positive thing.

What kind of approach are you taking to the play’s content, and how were the actors chosen to fit this vision?

We’ve cut the text quite extensively to ensure a quick pace and run-time, but it’s unapologetically still Shakespeare: we spent the first two weeks working on text to ensure the actors know exactly what they’re saying – which will allow them to carry the audience along with that meaning too.

Beyond the text itself though, we’ve taken a very modern approach to the whole thing. It’s quick, it’s conversational, we’ve got modern costumes and music – the lot.

We chose the actors with our usual focus on young, exciting talent and a mix of old and new faces. There’s a lot of doubling, so we also needed versatile people who were ready to improvise and create.

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

It’s a cliché, but it is really stronger than it’s ever been. To give one example, Teatru Manoel Youth Theatre has come close to the rep structure we’ve been crying out for for years, and it’s already started turning out some really exciting talents – who, even more importantly, have loads of drive, initiative and innovation. We’re going to be seeing the fruits of this for years to come.

On the other hand, the (for want of a better word) professionalisation brigade are throwing up some interesting challenges of legacy and identity. I still feel there isn’t enough discussion with the companies that have, for better or worse, driven the theatre scene for decades. We all want higher quality work and more professional standards, but I feel a widening gulf that feels dangerously like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

What’s next for you?

I go straight into directing Image of an Unknown Young Woman, a new British play about revolution and iconic images and YouTube, for the MADC at the Blue Box in Msida in May. Then, if this works, maybe more Shakespeare at the pub?

Two Gentlemen of Verona is directed by Philip Leone-Ganado and stars Joe Azzopardi, Nathan Brimmer, Bettina Paris, Giulia Xuereb and Joseph Zammit. Performances will be held at 20:00 on March 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 12, 13, 14, 15. Tickets from: The Pub, Archbishop’s Street, Valletta; [email protected]; 7734 5207