‘Just show them the damn lion’ | Philip Leone-Ganado

WhatsTheirNames Theatre are back with Twelfth Night, and Teodor Reljic catches up with director Philip Leone-Ganado to discuss the relative merits of big vs small Shakespeare, and whether the metaphorical lions should be caged or released 

Philip Leone-Ganado
Philip Leone-Ganado

WhatsTheirNames Theatre struck gold last year when they decided to stage William Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona within the cosy confines of Valletta’s The Pub, employing an unassuming and down-to-earth approach that went down a treat with a varied and game audience. Now they’re back with Twelfth Night, and Teodor Reljic catches up with director Philip Leone-Ganado to discuss the relative merits of big vs small Shakespeare, and whether the metaphorical lions should be caged or released.

So, it appears that this particular experiment worked. Shakespeare at the Pub packed full houses last time – taking into consideration the relative smallness of said house, of course – and the buzz was more than enthusiastic. Does this mean you’re going the ‘bigger and better’ route this time around? What has changed in your approach, if anything?

The cliché is ‘evolution not revolution’, right? Last year was the experiment: could we stage Shakespeare in a tiny pub with five actors? Could we make it fresh and exciting and fun without being gimmicky? This year we have the luxury of knowing what works and how to build on it. We’re not going to throw away a winning formula, but at the same time, we’re going to be keeping things fresh. There’ll be more of what people loved last year, but Twelfth Night is a different beast. Compared to Two Gentlemen, it’s a more sophisticated – meatier – comedy, and we have new faces in the cast bringing new ideas and energies to the table, so we couldn’t do the same thing even if we wanted to.

It looks as though the very idea of Shakespeare at the Pub has created something of a new standard – or at least, avenue – for Maltese theatrical productions. How smug do you feel about this right about now, and how soon do you think the inevitable rot of complacency will set in unless you spice things up substantially further down the line?

Oh, so smug. No, I’m thrilled that audiences have taken to our wacky ideas so readily, and hopefully we’ve shown there is ‘another way’ for Shakespeare in Malta. I’m particularly chuffed with the number of people who came to watch last year who had never been to a Shakespeare play before. But I have no delusions: what we’re doing is small, by necessity and design. We’re not changing Maltese theatre, we’re putting on a great show for 25 people every night. I think complacency can set in very quickly: the Pub only offers so many possibilities and while we haven’t exhausted them yet, I always remind myself that this was never meant as an end-all. I think it works precisely because it’s a bit out there and silly, so we’re not going to stop trying to do something out there and silly just because it works. 

From left: Becky Camilleri, Joanna Willis and Joseph Zammit (back) in Twelfth Night
From left: Becky Camilleri, Joanna Willis and Joseph Zammit (back) in Twelfth Night

On to the production itself. It was Two Gentlemen of Verona last time, and you’re going with Twelfth Night this time around. Do you think ‘Pub Shakespeare’ is better suited for comedies, or do you see yourself experimenting with Shakespeare’s Tragedies and ‘Problem Plays’ further down the line too? 

I do think the pub concept lends itself to comedy better than tragedy, but there are companies overseas – part of the inspiration for our own work – who have staged surprisingly hilarious takes on Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, so nothing’s necessarily off the table. And the core of our approach isn’t the pub itself – it’s accessible, stripped-down, audience-friendly Shakespeare, which can be applied to any play. I don’t know yet how or if it will happen, but I’d definitely love to see what this approach can do with something weird like Troilus and Cressida or Pericles.

What is it about Twelfth Night in particular that made you think it would be a suitable contender for this, your sophomore effort at Pub Shakespeare, and what kind of lessons are you carrying over from ‘Two Gentlemen’ when it comes preparation and staging?

The Guardian’s chief critic called it Shakespeare’s “most perfect comedy”, which has to mean something. When we first read it as a group, we realised it had the right mix of hilarity and zaniness that we needed. It’s got music, which is something we wanted to do more with after last year; it’s got one of the most recognisable characters of all time in Malvolio and his yellow stockings; but there’s also a lot of heart and depth and a smidge of darkness. As for staging… we realised last year that trying to stage a play with five actors in a pub too small to swing a cat is literally impossible – but then you somehow do it. It’s finding a way to turn limitations – two entrances that don’t connect, an audience close enough to see up your nostrils, actors playing three roles each – into strengths.

What do you think needs to be done to get both local audiences and theatre-makers to embrace a similarly ‘relaxed’ approach to Shakespeare as you guys appear to be attempting?

I think people – even theatre-makers – are a bit afraid of Shakespeare. A major local producer told me recently that we just have to accept that most actors can’t do Shakespeare. So then you assume the audience will be afraid, and you treat Shakespeare like a lion behind bars and give the audience little glimpses of it when it’s safe. And then people are more afraid because it’s behind bars so it must be scary. I don’t know: wouldn’t it be better if we just showed them the damn lion? They don’t need to be convinced. Again, I’m not claiming we’ve found the answer. ‘Big’ Shakespeare, embracing the vast scope of many of the plays, can be just as fun and exhilarating, if not more so, when it’s demystified and presented with energy and verve rather than staid respect. And there’s space for ‘small’ Shakespeare, finding the aspects of the same plays that fit into a pub (or a living room or a tent). 

Life after Shakespeare: What’s next for WhatsTheirNames, and what’s next for Philip?

I’ll be joining the cast of the MADC’s The Taming of the Shrew at San Anton Gardens this summer, and then preparing to direct As You Like It for the same event in 2018. In between, we’ll be plotting our next WhatsTheirNames project, which will be the best and most important theatrical event of the last decade as soon as we figure out what it is.

Twelfth Night will be directed by Philip Leone-Ganado and staged at The Pub, Archbishop Street, Valletta on April 23, 24, 25, 26, 27 and 30; May 1, 2 and 3 at 20:00. 

There will be additional morning shows at 10:00 on April 22, 23 and 29. Cast includes: Joe Azzopardi, Nathan Brimmer, Becky Camilleri, Joanna Wills and Joseph Zammit. Bookings can be made at the venue or via [email protected], 7734 5207 or 7905 2522

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