When the seams bleed: Anthony Nielsen’s Stitching gets its Malta stage

The once-banned Stitching certainly doesn’t live up to the shock factor suggested by the censors, but it remains an emotionally resonant exploration of grief

Michael Basmadjian and Pia Zammit navigated across an impressive emotional spectrum... with an effortlessness that only comes with the immersion expected of true professionals
Michael Basmadjian and Pia Zammit navigated across an impressive emotional spectrum... with an effortlessness that only comes with the immersion expected of true professionals

Generally speaking, gestation periods are the best thing that can happen to an artistic project. The rush for immediate gratification – so toxically enabled by our social-media-and-listsicle culture – is entirely inimical to a healthy creative process, which can only benefit from an extended process of rumination and the outset and some considered polish at the other end. It becomes doubly urgent in the local context, where the tendency to churn out something for the sake of churning it out is enabled by the low-stakes game that is our cultural scene.

In other words, it’s hard to make a living at it and even harder for it all to have an impact beyond our shores. As a result, the status quo ends up being populated by half-baked projects which never quite reach their full potential, to the detriment of all involved. Add to that toxic brew a quality-over-quantity happy Capital of Culture drive (which directly matches the country’s own overdevelopment drive in heedless expansion against all odds, audience oversaturation being one of them) and you’re left with a diluted scene all round.

Well, Stitching was all but forced into an extended gestation period, and this is just about the only silver lining on the horizon for Unifaun Theatre’s production of the Anthony Nielson two-hander starring Pia Zammit and Mikhail Basmadjian, which was performed in Scotland with a ‘14’ rating but was banned in Malta in what led to an overturning of the local censorship laws. I’m not privy to just how many rehearsal hours were put in by the two actors during the legal-moralistic saga that the show has been enmeshed in since 2009 – along with Alex Vella Gera’s ‘Li Tkisser Sewwi’ debacle, Stitching was the other cause celebre that led to the overhaul of censorship laws in Malta – but it would be fair to assume that the prolific local actors have at least been mentally inhabiting the roles of frayed couple Stewart (Basmadjian) and Abby (Zammit) for quite some time.

And it shows.

Now that Stitching has finally been given a shot at being performed - produced by Unifaun Theatre’s long-suffering producer Adrian Buckle and directed by Chris Gatt at the Teatru Manoel Studio Theatre in Valletta – what we saw on the Wednesday show was a fully fleshed out performance detailing the disintegration of a relationship in notes both harsh and tender but, as is ever the case with legitimate forms of art, entirely true.

The premise is simple, and though the trajectory of Nielson’s play is deliberately labyrinthine at times, the very same simplicity helps to maintain narrative coherence and emotional resonance throughout.

Abby and Stewart aren’t sure their relationship is going to work out, and when the prospect of  a baby pops into the equation, this tips their psyches over into a whole other can of worms; one laced with both neuroses and, perhaps, the prospect of a welcome fresh start. But when tragedy strikes, we see the cracks of their relationship develop into nasty shards.

And while this certainly leads to some unsavoury verbal sparring – with the spectre of domestic violence lurking uneasily over at least a couple of Abby and Stewart’s altercations – the ban placed upon the play can finally be revealed for the sham that it was. Indeed, the performance we saw – and which the authorities refused to watch, deeming the script to be necessary enough evidence to stop the production from being staged – was a hard-to-swallow but nonetheless entirely compassionate treatment of just how nuclear intimate tragedy can be for the people involved.

If anything, the setup brings to mind Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), though even then, it is thankfully shorn of the Danish filmmaker’s visual shock-tactics and hollow, attention-grabbing nihilism.

For all the rugged trauma splayed out for all of us to see, Nielson’s drama invites compassion for the damaged human beings we’re forced to spend time with, and while a cruel brain-imp led me to think “these people should never have kids”, the chronological shuffle-mode the play operates under does a fine job of pulling the rug from under that impression, too.

No strangers to performing alongside each other, Basmadjian and Zammit navigated across an impressive emotional spectrum on stage last Wednesday, with an effortlessness that only comes with the immersion expected of true professionals.

What was most surprising about the play was just how genuinely funny it is in parts – and these aren’t just the gimmicky ‘calm before the storm’ moments before the horror can begin in earnest. Doing good on Neilson’s ambition to depict a relationship in all of its complexity, the moments of teasing, self-deprecation and frustration (at the partner’s stubborn complacency, at their insensitivity, at their appetite for self-destruction) are as much a part of play as the chilling moments of screamed-out baroque obscenities and revelations of unsavoury sexual urges.

Unifaun Theatre have assured their place in Maltese theatrical history by being consistent in their mission to stage independent-minded productions which can sometimes veer towards the self-consciously ‘shocking’ – Buckle’s self-penned productions tend to be a mixed bag of ‘in-yer-face’ theatre pastiches that end up feeling more like exercises in postmodern Grand Guignol than legitimately searing and cathartic theatrical experiences – but which nonetheless work for the greater good of the Maltese theatrical scene.

Now that Stitching has finally made it to the stage, what we saw is not the vengeful display of a Satanic return-of-the-repressed unleashed to rattle us out of shape. It’s a small play about unremarkable people being thrust into a remarkable situation -- Stephen King’s basic criterion for a genre horror story, incidentally -- peppered with the hints of unsavoury sexual fetishes, some strong languages and a dildo being used a (non-fatal) sparring weapon.

Injected as it is with heartfelt and thoroughly considered performances and sensitive, unintrusive direction, however, this is more than enough for notable night at the theatre.