Looking ahead while looking back | Kenneth Zammit Tabona on Antigone

The Manoel Theatre’s Artistic Director Kenneth Zammit Tabona sits down with TEODOR RELJIC to discuss Antigone – a new production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, which transposes the Sophocles tragedy into wartime France... and which will hopefully herald a new era of classic drama at the Manoel

Sharon Bezzina and Mariele Zammit in Antigone – directed by Tyrone Grima and driven by a ‘Victorian Circus’ aesthetic
Sharon Bezzina and Mariele Zammit in Antigone – directed by Tyrone Grima and driven by a ‘Victorian Circus’ aesthetic

Was there anything in particular about this version of Antigone that attracted your attention and made you want to commit to the project wholeheartedly?

Maybe it’s my age. An adaptation of Sophocles’ great play set in Nazi-occupied France appeals to me – after all I was born only a decade after the end of WWII. The Anouilh adaptation, while following the Grecian Lines, makes the analogy between what was going on in France at the time very clear and abundantly poignant. When Tyrone told me that he would be re-transposing Antigone to a Victorian circus, I immediately got visions of a pulsatingly passionate, Pagliacci-type interpretation, and I was hooked.


What do you make of the team behind the project, and are they in line with your ideas about where to take the staging of new theatrical material on the island?

I know Tyrone to be extremely intellectual, however his  collaborators will balance this trait with a strong appeal which will ensure that this 4,000-year-old play will survive for perhaps another 4,000! It is the timelessness of Greek theatre which has ensured that these wonderful works by Euripedes, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes are still relevant today as they were in the great competition of Olympia – I am a classicist by nature and yes, I strongly believe that the Manoel Theatre should be the flagbearer to introduce yet another generation to the wonderful world of classical drama.


In a sense, this particular version of the classic Greek story will be a reinterpretation of a reinterpretation. How do hope the local audience responds to these “layers” of the production?

Manoel Theatre Artistic Director Kenneth Zammit Tabona: “The Manoel Theatre should be the flagbearer to introduce another generation to the world of classical drama”
Manoel Theatre Artistic Director Kenneth Zammit Tabona: “The Manoel Theatre should be the flagbearer to introduce another generation to the world of classical drama”

The reinterpretation of an interpretation doesn’t worry me. The message is clear, the emotions pristine and the beauty of the language is palpable. Great works of art continually renew themselves and drama which deals with the vagaries, eccentricities, deviations of human nature, remains as basically as unchanged as we are ourselves: we react  to jealousy, frustration, vengeance and all other human emotions today, just as our antecedents did thousands of years ago!   


Not too long ago, you commen-ted on how challenging it was to cast roles in the local theatrical context, which led to some ripples of discontent in the scene. Do you still hold to what you said, and if so, how do you think the situation can be remedied?

Since my “infamous” interview which was part of an overview of what I was experiencing as Artistic Director of the Manoel, we have in fact made some great strides  in the right direction. One of these improvements was the establishment of Teatru Malta. Still, I feel we need to improve the situation. We need to have more classical plays and by classical I mean literary plays – Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello, Lorca, Verga, etc... the selection is truly vast.

People in Malta have such limited access to this genre of the arts that it suffers from all-round neglect – audience development and education is of paramount importance – we simply cannot go on with the mentality that our annual visit to the panto at Christmastime is the be-all-and-end-all of our dramatic experience! Far from it. There are plenty of excellent actors around in Malta – I have no need to be convinced of this fact – it is however a situation where only a of years ago, the national theatre was wholly dependent on independent theatre companies to provide its dramatic productions, season in season out.

This led to a commercialisation of drama in the sense that, understandably, dramatic companies would stage comedies and popular hits to ensure that their box office income would be commensurate with their risk and efforts. The literary standards consequently got lower and lower. This is what I would like to turn around. And my original remark was prompted by the fact that nowadays  all actors seemed to prefer acting in TV dramas than in something by Anouilh, Beckett, Miller or Pinter – I hark back to the golden years of Maltese Theatre when in the 70s and 80s the Atturi Theatre Group, regularly presented plays like Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf?, Crime on Goat Island, Hedda Gabler and other great literary masterpieces that certainly took their audiences out of their comfort zones. In those days, Atturi played to packed, enthusiastic and appreciative audiences! What has changed so radically since then?


What is the next step for original theatrical productions at the Manoel Theatre?

I have every intention of resuscitating the “scene” created by Atturi at the Manoel Theatre and I hope that together we can create theatrical masterpieces that will internationalise our annual calendar in the field of drama. We have other productions in the pipeline notably Arthur Miller’s great masterpiece The Crucible and also the third of Spettur Bonnici Saga by Stagun Teatru Malti, Grokk Teatru ‘Baxx Baxx’ and we are preparing an even more varied dramatic programme for 2018/2019 season which will be around shortly.