Dreaming of a female pope | Irene Christ on Pope Joan

German actress and theatre-maker Irene Christ returns to the island to direct Pope Joan working off Susanne Felicitas Wolf’s stage adaptation of the Donna Woolfolk Cross novel

Irene Christ
Irene Christ

Having galvanised the contemporary Maltese theatre scene in the early noughties, German actress and theatre-maker Irene Christ returns to the island to direct Pope Joan working off Susanne Felicitas Wolf’s stage adaptation of the Donna Woolfolk Cross novel at the unique location of the Mdina Ditch, under the umbrella of Teatru Malta and as part of the Malta International Arts Festival programme

First of all, could you tell us a little bit about what it’s like to be returning to the Maltese stage, albeit as a director and not an actress?

Since 2009, I have been working again mainly in German theatre, acting and directing. But I always wanted to come back to work in Maltese theatre... and when I found the stage version of Pope Joan, I felt this is the moment.

Maria Buckle takes on the title role in Pope Joan
Maria Buckle takes on the title role in Pope Joan

The problem in the past was that the financial risk I had to take as a producer – as for all producers in Malta – was quite heavy because I work full-time in theatre, so this is how I make my living. But when Teatru Malta and the Malta International Arts Festival came in as producers, and thanks to sponsorship from the German Maltese Circle, the Goethe Institute and the US Embassy in Malta, we gained a proper budget for such a big production. So this was extremely helpful and I am very happy about the support. If you ask about my personal feelings about being back working in Maltese theatre... I love it! I had missed it, and this is a very special time in my life. It is great to work with actors and people in the team I have been working with in the past, and with people whom I got to know only recently – we have grown together in these last few weeks into a strong group focusing on one thing: the premiere of Pope Joan.

Why did you feel that Pope Joan would be the right production to make your ‘Maltese comeback’, and what is it about the play that appeals to you most as a theatre-maker? And particularly, given the Maltese context in which it will be staged, with the country loaded religious history...?

Religions, in general, have suppressed women and placed them into a role where they were expected to be silent and serve. In our societies, we have moved on from these extreme positions... yet all the prejudices about women are still present, and it is still more difficult for women to get into positions in which they are able to change things and make key decisions. I have always believed that gender equality will be a relief for both women and men, and I hope that in the long run we manage to walk along the long path together. Pope Joan is a reminder of the roots of these misconceptions about women.

When I read the play for the first time a couple of years ago, big discussions about the refugees from Muslim countries were at a peak in Europe... the most conservative people here, not exactly known as feminists, seemingly discovered female emancipation and wanted to save us from the ‘evil, medieval’ times that parts of the Muslim world seem to be stuck in... So I also felt the play is a little reminder that our past of suppressing women in society through religion isn’t all that remote after all. The idea of female priests within the Catholic Church – to say nothing of, well, female popes of course – also seems to be rather remote. But there are currently strong movements in the Catholic Church, so maybe not all is lost. The play is also not black and white, since it shows how some people within the Church discover Joan’s intelligence and support her on her path.

As a theater-maker, the play is a challenge because it moves to different places all the time. I am working with a highly experienced German set/costume/light designer, who worked at theatres such as the Berliner Ensemble. We decided to work with historical costumes in the early medieval style, but to introduce a very modern element: we are using projections, produced by well-known and internationally recognised photographer, Darrin Zammit Lupi. Additionally, most of our actors will be taking on multiple roles within the play. Planning the logistics of the production came with its own set of challenges, but thanks to a team of wonderful ladies – among them our production coordinator Gabija Kazlauskiene and my assistant Christine Scerri – we managed through long sessions of discussion. Meanwhile, Michela Manduca and Noel Agius worked like hell on getting about 35 costumes done in time and Karen Schembri Grima, who I love working with in both film and theatre, will do her medieval magic in make-up design. We’re all just very excited to watch everything come to life in just a few days.

How would you describe the assembled cast of the play? How have they been taking to their roles?

I am more than happy to work with great actors, most of them known to the Maltese audiences. First of all, Maria Buckle as Pope Joan herself: she is a star to me and I love watching her on stage. I had directed her in Tattoo by Dea Loher several years back, a play about sexual abuse in the family... she played the very difficult female lead role and I loved her mixture of sensitivity and strength. Besides, Maria is a very quick thinker, a trait she shares with the titular character.

I had worked in past productions on stage with Alan Paris, Chris Galea, Mikhail Basmadjian, Peter Galea, Faye Paris... wonderful actors with plenty of talent and nuance who really need no introduction. Antonella Axisa, Joe Despasquale, Michael Mangion, Alex Weenik and Stephen Mintoff are the actors who were new to me – not to the Maltese audience though! – and it has been a big pleasure to work with them. And I definitely would like to mention our youth actors, Ileana Cutajar, who plays a very modern young Joan, eager to learn and curious about life, Miguel Azzopardi, playing her brother John and Julian Zammit, playing the son of a Roman noble family. These are all up-and-coming talents, and at this point I would like to thank the Masquerade School for the Performing Arts for giving such valuable training to these youngsters.

Irene Christ (left) rehearsing for Pope Joan with an ensemble cast of seasoned Maltese talent
Irene Christ (left) rehearsing for Pope Joan with an ensemble cast of seasoned Maltese talent

Also important to the production is the choir Cappella Sanctae Catharinae, directed by Alex Vella Gergory. Alex is an amazing musician who works equally strong on artistic instinct and great theoretical knowledge. And those voices... chapeau!

How important is it for you that the play is being produced under the auspices of both Teatru Malta and the Malta International Arts Festival? How do you feel both entities contribute to the cultural scene in general, and the theatrical scene in particular?

I think Teatru Malta have changed the situation in theatre in Malta altogether. I remember when I first came to Malta having discussions with other Maltese producers about the fact that there is no national theatre, in the sense of a team working full-time on doing theatre. Of course, I was used to the German system, which is very, very different, with many highly subsidised city theatres all over the country. But the Maltese producer-colleagues explained to me the tradition of private theatre companies, and that with only one national theatre team it would only be a few actors who would benefit, which would cause a lot of damage to the existing companies.

But with Teatru Malta, the ‘national theatre without walls’ there is actually a system which supports existing companies and their work, and at the same time helps newcomers holistically, which in my opinion is a great innovation. I am seeing a very strong team there, led by Sean Buhagiar, who are very cooperative and pro-actively engaged with each and every production they take under their wing. The Malta International Arts Festival has been a household name for many years now, and its new artistic director Ruben Zahra will certainly give it a fresh, modern touch.

Finally... can we look forward to seeing you on the Maltese stage sometime soon after Pope Joan?

Yes! I will be acting at the beautiful Manoel Theatre, in a long-awaited production of a classic play set to premiere this October. More will be revealed very soon. I’m certainly looking forward to it!

Pope Joan will be performed at the Mdina Ditch from July 9 to July 12 (no show on July 8). All shows will begin at 9pm. The production is organised with the support of Festivals Malta, The Malta International Arts Festival, Arts Council Malta under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice Culture and Local Government, the Restoration Directorate Rehabilitation Project, Goethe Institute, US Embassy and The German Maltese Circle. The play is rated 13+. Bookings: kultura.mt