Rekindling a love affair for theatre | Toni Attard

Returning to theatre directing after a few long years of tending to Malta’s cultural policy, Toni Attard speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about tackling Unifaun’s upcoming production, En Folkefiende – An Enemy of the People, Brad Birch’s modern retelling of Ibsen’s classic play, tackling the urgent and all-too-relevant fault-lines between politics and media

Mikhail Basmadjan and Antonella Axisa in En Folkefiende – An Enemy of the People
Mikhail Basmadjan and Antonella Axisa in En Folkefiende – An Enemy of the People

How does it feel to be back in the director’s chair (or saddle... whichever you prefer) after something of a hiatus?

It feels like a rekindled love affair – excited to be back, flirting with ideas that still need to be explored as if I’m thinking about them for the first time.

You’ve previously collaborated with Unifaun Theatre on Tender Napalm, which was considered to be something of a landmark production by many local theatre aficionados, while also being staged at the Edinburgh Fringe. What is it about Unifaun that keeps you returning, and what kind of contribution do you think they’ve made to the local theatre scene over the years?

As a producer, Adrian [Buckle] provides me and other collaborators with the ideal creative environment to take risks – be it in content, subject matter or staging. I think that Unifaun has successfully managed to bring a number of Maltese theatre makers together to collaborate on numerous productions in both Maltese and English and across different genres. With a diverse portfolio ranging from in-yer-face theatre to straight comedy, leading to mixed box office takings and critical reviews, Unifaun is by far one of Malta’s most prolific and diverse production companies in the contemporary theatre scene.

Toni Attard
Toni Attard

After all is said and done, however, subtlety may not be Unifaun’s forte – given their reputation for visceral, in-yer-face theatre, as well as what appears to be openly, confrontationally political shows like Enemy of the People. What excited you about this project, and what kind of reaction do you hope it will evoke in the audience?

A week after the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia I was reading an article in an international newspaper on the open and indiscriminate global attack of independent media, fuelled by the now well established fake news discourse. At the time I wasn’t really planning to direct any work, however I felt there was a sense of urgency in exploring this further. I started reading different scripts until Adrain introduced me to Brad Birch’s adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.

The economical way in which Brad explores the characters and the scandal that unfolds, was the perfect text to open up a conversation. The complex relationship between politics, the media, business and society is not new to theatre and the original 19th century work sets the perfect tone. As we try to decipher between fact and fiction, news and hearsay, in a virtual space cluttered with noise, filtering truth is a daunting task.

When the media and knowledgeable experts across different technical sectors are trusted less than politicians, then fundamental processes in democracy are at stake.  The rehearsal process is mainly characterised by an examination of what the characters expose and hide during their moments of silence because everyone’s intention may not be what it seems to be. This psychological game is extended to the audience, who are invited to scrutinise these relationships as the enemy of the people is created before any truth will ever emerge.

You’ve been at the forefront of Malta’s cultural strategy over the past few years, and are now branching out into the private sector with your skill-set. What prompted this move, and is finding time for creative projects such as these a part of it?

For a number of years I’ve been advocating the importance of the private sector to secure sustainable growth in the creative sectors and I always had a keen interest in exploring this in my personal capacity. After 11 years working in the public sector it was time to plunge into this adventure. Shifting from international cultural policy design to producing arts projects and directing my own work as part of a long day’s work is very exciting and challenging. This situation gives me the freedom to move from one project to another in Malta and abroad linking my different professional and artistic interests.

On that note, and as someone with a clear idea about where cultural policy and related funding streams may be going, what advice would you give to creatives in Malta who are rearing to take a risk on their pet projects?

There are a number of channels available to kick off creative projects and starting off with a conversation on funding may not always be a good starting point to get that idea off the ground. More time should be spent on researching that idea and finding the right collaborators and partners to shape a project idea into manageable stepping stones.

Sharing a pet project with other  artists or organisations may be problematic for some, however collaborations provide new opportunities for ideas to grow and individual weaknesses can easily transform into productive collective efforts.

Very few can singlehandedly create, manage and sell their own work without losing focus on their artistic vision. In addition, as competition for public funding on both national and European levels increases at a faster rate than available funds, projects needs to be exceptionally designed to meet the priorities of the funds – this is the nature of the beast, but never change the vision of your project to lure the beast.

What’s next for you?

My next project as a theatre director will be a collaboration with ZfinMalta Dance Ensemble in an adaptation of Francis Ebejer’s Boulevard as part of the Teatru Malta season. This is my first dance theatre collaboration with Paolo Mangiola, the company’s artistic director. The project is a nine-month creative process that brings together contemporary dancers and actors on the Manoel Theatre stage inspired by an absurd piece that shook the Maltese theatre scene in the 1960s.


En Folkefiende – An Enemy of the People will be staged at Blue Box at M Space, Msida on March 9-11 and 16-18 at 20:00. The cast includes: Mikhail Basmadjian, Anthony Ellul, Simone Spiteri, Antonella Axisa, Victor Debono, Philip Leone Ganado, Jean Marc Agius Cafa and Raquel Theuma. Bookings:  “”