The New Victorians confront the coloniser in dramatisation for Sette Giugno centenary

Scottish playwright Erin Carter speaks to MaltaToday about crafting VII (Sette), a dramatisation of the events of Sette Giugno directed by the musical duo The New Victorians and presented by Teatru Malta 

What attracted you to this production, and how do you think it pertains to your earlier work and experience?

What attracts me to any project is the story. At present, the world is in such a divisive state, I felt a story about putting political differences aside and uniting behind a larger, common goal was a story worth telling. I am interested in history and find Malta’s history fascinating. On a personal level, I am a Scottish writer, so a story about long-fought struggles for Independence really resonates, and is something I find easy to emotionally connect with. From a creative perspective the theatre I enjoy watching, and try to make, is theatre that feels essential, is of its time and presented in a way that is unique. This project is definitely an example of that.

The process is hugely collaborative, led by music duo The New Victorians and featuring an International cast and Zfin Malta contemporary dancers. So, it has been possible to create something that feels truly original. Something that can only be created by these people, at this time, for this audience. In my previous work I have sought innovative collaborations that provide the opportunity to blend artistic disciplines in an unlikely way. In my experience this creative collision presents a theatrical challenge that results in the most creative outcome.

Sette Giugno is, of course, a key event in Maltese history; one that’s loaded with post-colonial dynamics. What was your entry point into this complex subject, and how did you first start building on it as a dramatic piece?

Understanding Sette Giugno and the events leading up to that fateful day was a huge research task. Immersing myself in the history of the period, I was initially overwhelmed by the complexities of the political landscape at the time. However, as I came to understand it, I realised that the complexity, the differing perspectives and the contradictions within the accounts of the events is the drama itself. I didn’t want to simplify the story, I wanted to reflect its complexity, present the events from multiple perspectives and allow the audience space to draw their own conclusions.  

Working with The New Victorians, we studied the key moments and sources of tension leading up to the events. We then looked at the events themselves, the aftermath and how this relates to where we now find ourselves. The conflict, and so the drama, is already in the story. For us the challenge was in deciding which parts to feature. The story is historical and political by design, my priority was finding the human one, ensuring the audience can emotionally connect to the work.

In order to write characters, you have to find a way of understanding their motivations, even if you don’t agree; something that has been a challenge in writing this piece. It is easy to understand the motivation of the disillusioned Maltese patriot but harder to understand the Maltese imperialist, the profiteering merchant or the soldier who opened fire. As a dramatist I feel it necessary to humanise all the characters, focusing on their humanity in order for the political complexity of the situation to resonate.

What was it like to collaborate with Simon Bartolo to translate the piece? What were some of the most interesting and sensitive linguistic and cultural elements that you ended up discussing and unpacking?

This was my first experience working with a translator in the theatre and I suspect I have been thoroughly spoiled in Simon Bartolo. The speed at which Simon works and his linguistic dexterity is hugely impressive, but it is the creative nature of our collaboration that I have most enjoyed. He understands how to use language to best serve a Maltese story and being a storyteller himself, he’s appreciative of what I am trying to achieve from a dramatic perspective, as well as a linguistic one.

I find the relationship between nationalism and language one of the most fascinating elements of Maltese history. It again speaks to me on a personal level, as Scots Gaelic was wiped out and forcibly replaced by English during the Highland Clearances. In Scotland, like in Malta, language can can be a contentious subject because it is directly linked to an individual’s sense of cultural identity. Discussing Sette Giugno with anyone in Malta, the significance of the ‘language question’ immediately comes about. For that reason, I felt a sense of responsibility (and I’ll be honest, also fear) about my choices around how to use language in this piece.

The challenge is that if we were to reflect history directly, the characters featured in VII would speak; Maltese, English or Italian, depending on the context and their place in society. Thematically, it was important to represent these perspectives and not shy away from the significance of the ‘language problem.’ However, I also wanted to ensure the story was accessible and reached the widest possible audience. Working with Simon, we quickly discovered how alienating a lengthy scene in Italian would be for a modern audience and so talked about the how to overcome this. The result is a show in three languages; Maltese, English and what we affectionately term, ‘Maltalian’ a theatrical language of Maltese with Italian influences spoken by the educated classes.

Another important choice related to language is the character of ‘The Multiplier,’ who is based on a historical figure; the literate member of the village who would read aloud the newspaper in the village square. I was very inspired by the idea of a character having to tell a story aurally in order for it to be spread, or ‘multiplied’ through the community. Paralleling this, in VII the multiplier is the audience’s point of access to the story. He moves between languages, electing to use whichever one best serves the narrative. I like to think that this narrator figure speaks the ‘theatrical language of the play’. His objective, like my own, is to make the story understood and to give it the breadth of audience it deserves. The multi-lingual nature of this production is just one of the elements that make it so ambitious and so I have been incredibly grateful to have Simon to hold my hand and problem solve along the way.