Greatness, and beer, thrust upon you | WhatsTheirNames Theatre

WhatsTheirNames Theatre have once again launched a charm offensive on the Maltese theatrical scene with their sophomore attempt at ‘Pub Shakespeare’ – this time tackling the Bard’s Twelfth Night with signature zest and aplomb 

Friendzoned? Viola (Becky Camilleri) is in love with her boss, Duke Orsino (Nathan Brimmer)... but he thinks she’s a guy
Friendzoned? Viola (Becky Camilleri) is in love with her boss, Duke Orsino (Nathan Brimmer)... but he thinks she’s a guy

It’s something of a running joke that most people in the local arts scene know each other, and that the rarefied world of Maltese bohemians is strung together by a clutch of distinct cliques who only attend each other’s events ad nauseam... and that mostly, this serves as an opportunity to consolidate their social circle, rather than engage with the art in question in and of itself. 

This is also doubtless the case in every other part of the world – ultimately art is an ‘Interest’, and interests all attract their specific practitioners and fans – but of course, Malta’s diminutive size only accentuates this tendency. 

It is for this reason above all, I think, that WhatsTheirNames Theatre’s efforts at staging Shakespeare at The Pub in Archbishop Street feels like a frank attempt at making the best with what we’ve got. Yes, audiences are small and venues are scarce. Yes, theatre companies won’t make a killing off their productions and the brain drain of actors is a real concern for the long-term health of the scene. 

But while we’re all here, why not scale back and present something unpretentious and just that little bit special? 

Directed by Philip Leone-Ganado, who also stars in the production, Twelfth Night marks WhatsTheirName’s second attempt at squeezing in a Shakespeare comedy within the cosy confines of the pub that bears its own – albeit macabre – thespian legacy (it being the final resting place of the legendary hellraiser Oliver Reed). 

Viola (Becky Camilleri) finds herself shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria, losing her twin brother Sebastian (Philip-Leone Ganado) in the process. To protect herself, she disguises herself as a young man – calling herself Cesario – and commits herself to the service of the region’s Duke, Orsino (Nathan Brimmer). Orsino charges ‘Cesario’ to help him woo the wealthy heiress Olivia (Joanna Willis). The only problem is that Olivia falls in love with ‘Cesario’ instead... but Orsino is the one Viola truly loves.

On Thursday, Camilleri emerged as the stand-out performer of the lot, balancing out humour, poignancy and exasperation in her double role as Viola-Cesario and Maria with grace and effectiveness, taking full advantage of the Pub’s intimate setting to convey the sometimes subtle tonal shifts required by both characters, as they engage in subterfuge for different reasons entirely. 

Rowdy ruckus: Joe Azzopardi and Nathan Brimmer (back: Joseph Zammit)
Rowdy ruckus: Joe Azzopardi and Nathan Brimmer (back: Joseph Zammit)

UK visitor Joanna Willis was also a charming presence, eschewing the easy route with Olivia and not, in fact, making her come across as an entitled brat but instead, a lovelorn lady who is plunged to confusion, but who always manages to keep her wits about her... in every sense of the word.

Energy and rowdy laughs, on the other hand, were supplied aplenty thanks to Nathan Brimmer and Joe Azzopardi – the latter in particular more or less solidifying his role as the court jester of WhatsTheirNames... by in fact playing a court jester as one of his roles this time around (the other being the showy but ultimately thwarted playboy Sir Andrew Aguecheek). 

Brimmer makes full use of his physicality and naturally disarming demeanour to get the most out of both role’s he’s charged with – Duke Orsino (an authority figure with a romantic soft spot) and Sir Toby Belch (Olivia’s drunken lout of an uncle). 

But while Brimmer plays very much to type with great effect, Joseph Zammit mixes up his comedic repertoire by taking on the tightass to end all tightasses, Malvolio, and for once emerges as the one too be laughed at, not laughed with. Rechannelled into this role, the actor’s booming voice and unfailing energy stand him in good stead, and his take on this character we love to hate is a reminder of why Zammit remains one of our most consistent actors, in a field that’s still a long way away from becoming fully professionalised.

Unsurprisingly, however, the real ‘star’ of the show remains WhatsTheirNames’s energetic and unruffled approach to the source material, which takes full advantage of the venue to present a Shakespeare production in a mode that will appeal to those who may be a bit shy of the Bard’s reputation. 

Hopefully, this goes some way to addressing the inward-looking nature of the Maltese cultural scene – as described above – and that other theatrical groups will be encouraged by the success of this particular venture to do their own lo-fi thing in the near future.

The only real concern – a niggling one making its way through the giggles – is the question: where now? Sure, a healthy CV of the Bard’s comedies all performed under The Pub’s roof would make for a fine historical moment for Maltese theatre. But it could also be seen as resting on one’s laurels, somewhat. But whatever the future may hold for WhatsTheirNames Theatre, with these two plays they’ve proven that the talent is out there to create down-to-earth theatre, and that Maltese audiences – however small their numbers – are more than willing to lap it up. Given how Twelfth Night ended up having a waiting list for prospective audience members who didn’t make it to the lucky 20, room for expansion is also a possibility. 

Here’s hoping that the group can carry on creating work with the same intensity and energy for many years to come. 

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