Migration: from the headlines and into the theatre

Two theatrical performances in February brought the migration discussion into focus – pulling it away from sensationalist headline fodder and into a more considered conversation

Clockwise from left: Marta Lombardi, Magdalena Von Kuilenburg (back), Ali Konate and Sharon Bezzina during Rima: Encounter with Migrant Narratives • Photo by Virginia Monteforte
Clockwise from left: Marta Lombardi, Magdalena Von Kuilenburg (back), Ali Konate and Sharon Bezzina during Rima: Encounter with Migrant Narratives • Photo by Virginia Monteforte

Migration has finally moved from being a mere headline-grabber on local newspapers and portals, to a topic being taken seriously in the artistic sphere from various angles. And the month of February bore this fact out quite clearly, with two – otherwise quite different – theatrical performances using migration as their jumping off point.

Lampedusa, the play by Anders Lustgarten staged at Spazju Kreattiv (St James Cavalier) in Valletta in both English and Maltese-language versions, was a stylistically simple but effective attempt at showing how migration can mean different things to different people, and how its ripple effects permeate across various borders. Directed by Herman Grech for Unifaun Theatre, the play’s strongest asset was its two-hander cast, with Pia Zammit playing a Syrian migrant naturalized into UK life and Mikhail Basmadjan throwing himself into the role of Lampedusa fisherman whose job is now focused on collecting dead migrant bodies from the sea.

A likeable actor whichever way you spin it, Basmadjan is a perfect fit for the fisherman Stefano, whose grizzled charisma wins you over even when his worldview is not all that pleasant, and then he’ll have you rooting for him wholeheartedly once he decides to stop looking at migrants as mere numbers and embark on a death-defying mission to save one of their number. This also leads to something of a “Hollywood” ending.

Thankfully, Zammit’s Denise – Chinese in the original, made Syrian for the Maltese audience – is a more nuanced character. A second-generation migrant working a thankless trade – loan collecting – she faces regular prejudice at home, while cultivating a few of her own.

An emphatic and likeable performance, the play is however let down by its back-and-forth monologue structure, with Stefano and Denise’s stories placed in parallel for the sake of the viewer, but never quite click into place thematically in a satisfying way.

A similar problem beset Rima: Encounter with Migrant Narratives, which overlapped with Lampedusa over its two-evening run at the end of February. Forming part of the artistic-anthropological ‘Rima’ project – which seeks to first and foremost allow migrants themselves to tell their stories – the performance, directed by Marcelle Teuma at Palazzo Pereira, Valletta sourced its stories from real migrants living in Malta.

The main point of interest here was that while two professional actors – Sharon Bezzina and Magdalena Von Kuilenburg – enacted a number of real-life stories collected by the Rima team, non-professional actors Ali Konate (Mali) and Marta Lombardi (Italy) took to the stage to tell their own experience of migration in general and Malta in particular.

The meaning of home, and the varied priorities of the informants, were interesting to see in a theatrical context, but just as Lampedusa’s juxtaposition of monologues felt a bit too pat, so would Teuma’s approach have benefitted from a more streamlined take on the narratives. As it stood, Konate’s compelling tale of escape and hardship overwhelmed the other stories – spanning America, Japan and Italy – and created an unwelcome, and doubtlessly unintended, rift between ‘types’ of migration presented.

However, the remaining trio remain a physical presence throughout Konate’s monologue, just as he stands in for an Italian relative during Marta Lombardi’s endearing evocation of a bustling family lunch.

This strand of migrant-focused theatre may need tweaking, but it feels like an interesting, even necessary, experiment in its own right.

Lampedusa was staged at Spazju Kreattiv (St James Cavalier) February 13, 14, 18-21, 25-28. Rima: Encounter with Migrant Narratives took place at Palazzo Pereira, Valletta on February 26 and 27. For more information about the project and to learn more about its latest crowdfunding campaign, log on to: https://rimaprojectblog.wordpress.com/