Finding comedy in grotesque sincerity | Mikhail Basmadjian

Actor Mikhail Basmadjian, taking the titular role in Il-Mitt Fehma tal-Kavallier John Giordimaina OSCI, speaks to Teodor Reljic about this opinionated but sincere loudmouth, who is composed out of a series of tales and reflections from Trevor Zahra’s ‘Bizzilla’

In a metafictional twist, the author of the source text, Trevor Zahra (left), appears in Il-Mitt Fehma tal-Kavallier John Giordimaina OSCI alongside lead actor Mikhail Basmadjian (right). Photo by Jacob Sammut
In a metafictional twist, the author of the source text, Trevor Zahra (left), appears in Il-Mitt Fehma tal-Kavallier John Giordimaina OSCI alongside lead actor Mikhail Basmadjian (right). Photo by Jacob Sammut

Actor Mikhail Basmadjian sounds all geared up to take on his next stage challenge – the titular role in Il-Mitt Fehma tal-Kavallier John Giordimaina OSCI, the latest production by Unifaun Theatre and an adaptation of a short story collection by none other than Trevor Zahra. He speaks about this opinionated but sincere loudmouth, who is composed out of a series of tales and reflections from Zahra’s ‘Bizzilla’ and who appears to embody some readily recognisable traits of Maltese ‘culture’… 

What drew you to this play in general, and what excites you about the character you’ll be playing in particular?

The Kavallier is a very educated man and deeply religious. He has opinions about everything, which he has been formulating for years, in his own words – through hard practice, and blood tears. Throughout his life, he has worked as a civil servant, teacher and a marketing manager. He is also a member of various clubs, socio-cultural and religious associations, voluntary organisations and even contested the 1981 General election as an independent candidate – gaining 23 votes in the process, and later being elected as a councillor in the Local Council elections! 

The humour in this speaks for itself.  He has also written various publications including his latest book, Bizzilla… and is a knight of the order of San Clement (OSCI). His hobbies include music, cinema, theatre, politics, Maltese history, fireworks, literature and culture in general. Rather than not caring about anyone else’s opinions he is truly convinced that his is the only correct take on a variety of subjects. He does not stop to even consider that he could be wrong, and although mocked by some, is generally respected by society. Applying this in the Maltese context, there is certainly an eccentric ‘Kavallier’ character each of us have met at one time or another.

What was it like to switch from such a tonally different play as Unintended (also a Unifaun production) to this; was it refreshing or challenging, and would you recommend this kind of move to other actors (i.e., does diversifying your practice in such a stark way keep things fresh)? 

We are actors and have to be able to switch from north to south pole if necessary, in the same day if need be! 

The two parts are completely different – Martin the psycho-sadistic-masochistic father who tortures and kills his daughter’s boyfriend, this being a ‘normal evening’ during the week! –  and the Kavallier – a moralist, religious fanatic, opinionated, old school respected gentleman! 

I was actually already rehearsing for Kavallier all though the Unintended performances. To be honest, when the characters are miles apart, as in this case, it is not difficult to compartmentalise and switch from one to another. It definitely keeps things fresh and interesting – in a way, doing amateur theatre is much more satisfying than doing the same part over and over professionally. 

Also, the author himself – Trevor Zahra – is acting in the play! Acting with Trevor is fun – he is such a fun and easy-going person. I have a lot of lines I am often apologetic to him for changing certain words and phrases, but he says he has no problem with that.  The text is beautifully written, and is very conversational. The advantage of having the author with you is that he can always provide an in-depth analysis of what he intended the character to be.  

Having said that, all through rehearsals Trevor has not interfered with the development of the character, and himself says that there is a difference between reading a piece, and ‘reading and playing’ a piece. Sometimes it plays differently to how it reads – the actor adds pauses, facial expressions, intonations and movements which are not in the original text. 

Hence, it is a learning process for both the actor and the author. Sometimes, during my speeches, I steal a look at Trevor at the other end of the room to see his reaction to my delivery! I hope I can live up to the character he intended Kavallier to be, with strong input from the director, Josette Ciappara.     

The play appears to be a satirical jab at many aspects of contemporary Maltese culture, and it seems that your character in particular will be chief dispenser of said jabs. What kind of targets can we look forward to, and how did you seek to channel Trevor Zahra’s humour for maximum effect? 

Simplicity is the key. Rather than appearing grotesque and overtly eccentric, the challenge is to convince the audience that the Kavallier truly believes in the arguments he presents – therein lies the humour. So, what may seem to be a simplified take on things, often based on logic alone (in my opinion something that recently society has been trading for ‘procedure’) is often the correct conclusion, but one that we as a society have either outgrown or learn to ignore and live with.  

The Kavallier reminds us of the basics which life has taught us to ignore or take for granted. One could develop and play this character as a bombastic, authoritative and larger than life figure, however my approach is to portray him as a patriot, passionate and sincere in his conclusions. The comedy lies in his sincerity. Although his conclusions are often far-fetched, grandiose and appear to be re-inventing the wheel, one will eventually stop and say – there is a strong element of truth in his arguments, and there is a Kavallier in each and every one of us!

What do you make of the local theatrical 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 and so on. 

Perhaps the question we need to ask is – should all those involved in theatre growth and development (actors, directors, writers, producers, authorities, and others) 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.  

What’s next for you?  

Next is a diving Holiday in the Maldives – so no plans for any more theatre at the moment, but something always comes along.

Il-Mitt Fehma tal-Kavallier John Giordimaina OSCI will be staged at Temi Zammit Hall, University of Malta on March 18, 19, 24, 25 and 26. The play is directed by Josette Ciappara, and the rest of the cast includes Simon Curmi, Mary Rose Mallia, Anthony Ellul, Andre Mangion, Christine Francalanza, Graziella Galea and Trevor Zahra. Bookings: