When the ‘Man for Malta’ is a woman | John Baraldi

Formerly UK-based theatre director John Baraldi speaks to MaltaToday about Apotheosis, an upcoming play about Dolores, a Maltese woman shunted to the fringes of society, but whose tell-all memoirs threaten to shake the foundations of the local establishment

Angele Galea and Marc Cabourdin star in ‘Apotheosis’, staged at Spazju Kreattiv
Angele Galea and Marc Cabourdin star in ‘Apotheosis’, staged at Spazju Kreattiv

What is the story behind ‘Apotheosis’? How did the initial ideas behind it first come about, and how did it eventually cohere into the play that we’ll see performed?

Apotheosis grew out of a Thanksgiving meal at my house in Hamrun in November 2014, so I blame it on the effect of too much food, too much wine, and too much Jack Daniels on Marc Cabourdin, who stood up and gave the most amazingly passionate rant about how much he loved his country and how badly it had been served by its politicians. I saw a side of Marc which I had never seen before, as he normally gets cast as a good-looking heavy. And I thought that I had to write a play to create a charismatic, multi-dimensional man who seems to be all that his nation needed.

It was the idea of “cometh the hour, cometh the man” – how historical evolution sometimes gives birth to a leader who epitomises all that a nation is, all that a nation needs, all that a nation wants. Thus the idea of The Man for Malta was born. Of course, I realised that Marc was far too busy doing far too many things to ever act in such a play but I liked the idea of a national leader emerging at a time of national need. And I realised that that leader should be a woman - a possibility which is highly unlikely in Malta.

So The Man for Malta had to be a woman! I was going to commission a playwright to do it, but I soon realised that my ideas were already far too developed to put them into the hands of another writer. So I decided to do it myself! So I started reading and went to the University of Malta to get some background and historical context. Soon, I had piles of books and articles and far too much information, so I looked for a structure.

Years ago, I took students in London to hear Arthur Miller being interviewed on stage in the West End by the Director of the National Theatre. Miller talked about writing Death of a Salesman and how certain pieces of classical music seemed to influence the structure and mood of the piece. So I decided to find some music which seemed to work with the ideas swimming in my head.

After many weeks, I found Arvo Part’s Lamentate, which was written as a homage to Anish Kapoor’s extraordinary installation in the vast Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London in 2002. The myth of Marsyas seemed appropriate – a human flayed alive by the gods for daring to challenge them; what a suitable allegory for a woman trying to be a political leader in Malta! Thus it seemed appropriate to be influenced by a musical composition attempting to honour a contemporary sculpture based on an ancient myth!

So I took the ten movements of Arvo Part’s composition, and structured ten scenes – each scene taking the title and the emotional content of the movement. Having been a musician in my youth, I understood the sonata format, theme and variations, exposition, development and all that. And it seemed appropriate to take a story on a structured emotional journey, using music as the guide.

It is said that each movement in a symphony or sonata is like a sentence, and the sentences add up to paragraph or story. The same is true of a play. In this case, the musical description of the movement gave me the emotional content and speed of the scene. And then I came across Tchaikovsky’s music for Sleeping Beauty – the Apotheosis music in which the heavens bless Aurora – two minutes of glorious music often cut because the scene can be so expensive to stage. And finally, I found Arvo Part’s Vater Unser – a setting for the Lord’s Prayer, which is ironic in that the character feels abandoned by God and cannot mouth prayers any longer. And there I had it… a play created by music.

Why did you decide to concentrate on political violence in Malta as the core subject matter of the work? How was this informed by your experience of Malta in particular?

The play is not about political violence, no, not at all. The play is about a woman in Malta. Yes, sometimes there is violence, but most mentions of violence in the play are references to domestic violence – abusive fathers and husbands. But you cannot talk about recent Maltese political history without mentioning things like 19 car bombs since 2010, and the torching of the Times of Malta building, and the fact that police have to stand between rival bands in village festas, and a young girl was blown up in her home at Christmas opening a package addressed to her father. And Malta is a nation in which men with guns ride roughshod over the countryside and natural law.

Oh yes – I forgot –  and a female journalist was blown up in Malta just over a year ago and her makeshift memorial was constantly attacked. But the play is not about political violence. It is a play about a very clever little girl who has dreams and realises that things that often happen should not happen.

And she realises that what stands between her and what she can become is an army of men intent on running the country as if it were their private domain. It is a play about a European capital city littered with great statues of men with not a woman to be celebrated – except for Queen Victoria. So, no, the play is not about political violence. The play is also about growing old! It drinks from the same reservoir as [Samuel Beckett’s] Krapp’s Last Tape in that sense.

As an outsider looking in, how do you perceive the more tense and/or secretive aspects of Maltese society, and how adequate and revelatory was the research period for ‘Apotheosis’ on this front?

I learn more every day. I learn from my neighbours. I learn from people in the pub. I learn from people in shops. I learn about people losing their homes after 18 or 20 or 30 years because unscrupulous landlords shove them out to make more money for themselves. I see foreigners accosted in the street and on buses. I see empty garages and shops being rented out for domestic use by landlords exploiting refugees. I see empty shops and houses on the high street, rotting away because the owners cannot agree on what to do with them.

I see lovely traditional family houses knocked down to be turned into dreadful tiny flats. I see a fake university and a ‘smart city’ take over land and buildings which should be developed for public good. I see cranes everywhere. I see the sky and the light and sea views stolen by new towers for rich foreigners. My research is around me every day. And I do not have to do much research to see that women have little access to the political processes here – fewer women in government than in most other EU countries. And I ask myself why? Why do Maltese people allow their leaders to do this?

What do you make of your collaborators on this play, and how does it feel to have your script fleshed out by them?

It is great working with Marc Cabourdin and Annalisa Schembri! They are really wonderful. Chris Gatt has been amazing to talk to. Karmen Azzopardi is extraordinarily inspiring. Jo Caruana and her team are great to work with. And Angele Galea! She is a spiritual actor of huge talent! She understood the script from the first read! She is going to be amazing!

Given that ‘Apotheosis’ was given a new surge of relevance in the wake of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, what do you hope audiences will get out of the production? Do you hope it will lead to reflection, catharsis, or both?

It is extraordinary that the research for the writing of the play predicted the killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia. But it has proven to me that the potential for political violence in Malta is just under the surface.

What do I hope for the audience? I hope that they think after and during the play! I hope that they laugh! I hope that they cry. Dolores has taken over my life, and I now see the world through her eyes. I hope that the audience has very mixed emotions in the end – that they understand what Dolores does. I hope that the audience is moved. I hope that the audience has a huge catharsis and a huge cause to think and reflect.

And I hope that they stay and talk about what the play has to say! I still get chills and shivers in parts. And I know that Marc said he cried three times reading it. And I know that Angele had to fight through tears to read to the end of one scene about a ladies’ day out in a pool. That is the power of stories. We learn through parables. And we need complicated stories to help keep us asking questions.

What do you make of the local theatrical scene? What would you change about it?

I have spent my life in theatre and it means a lot to me. I am not sure if the Maltese theatre scene excites me. I do not think that the Arts Council has a real policy for theatre, and they seem to fund the same people making the same mistakes over and over again. I don’t get it! Maltese actors are very good but badly served by the directors. It is sad. Both the actors and audiences often get cheated. There is little room for new ideas.

What’s next for you?

I have four more plays to develop. Firstly there is Baghdad Lady – about a Maltese woman in her 30s/40s who becomes homeless and ends up living in an abandoned car. In order to travel the streets with anonymity, she starts to wear a burkha so that neither her family or friends see her – such is the tragic weight of being homeless Malta. Disengaged from everyday life, she sees Malta as if watching through the wrong end of a telescope.

The next is Annabella, Chopin and Liszt about a crazy Maltese lady who has a late night shopping channel and becomes all evangelical and mindful –combining shopping, household ideas, and her new religion, in which Chopin and Liszt speak to us all through their music.

Then there is The Maid of Two Mistresses which is a modern Maltese female take on Servant of Two Masters – set in Sliema. The last is The Pastizzi King – a musical about an aspiring pastizzi maker and his hairdresser wife – set in Hamrun – in which the hero seeks fame and fortune by being crowned Malta’s King of Pastizzi as long as the public never figures out what his secret ingredient is. You will never eat one again!

And I am setting up a series of workshops for theatre makers, directors and performers – trying to pass on 50 years of experience to a new generation and creating some theatre events to push the art form in new directions, in an international context.