We’ve struck oil and the future is scary

For all the laughter, I think the audience at Sibna z-Zejt realized that its satire had zeroed in on one too many home truths and that while we are alienated with living our lives, there are murky figures who are actually making decisions which affect us all.

Clive Piscopo, Peter Busuttil, and Mario Micallef
Clive Piscopo, Peter Busuttil, and Mario Micallef

There was one particular moment during Sibna z-Zejt, the socio-political satire written by Wayne Flask, when one sentence seemed to hang there in mid-air as the audience went eerily silent. It went something like this: “whatever happened to the Labour party which used to fight so hard for the poor?”

Spoken by one of the Micallef brothers (l-Artist, beautifully played by Sean Briffa) who has been banished to Filfla for his outspoken ways, that one sentence encapsulates everything which many feel when they look upon the PL today, with its glib double-speak and fat cats in sharp suits who strut around with self-importance because they’re in charge.

In its determination to make itself electable the party has managed to transform itself, shedding its earthy workers’ image and fully embracing capitalism, moving so far to the centre that I wonder whether it even calls itself left-wing any more. In the process of carrying out this fancy makeover (which, let’s face it, worked) we have to wonder whether the Labour party has lost its soul in the process.

That is what Flask seems to be asking as he paints a picture of a futuristic Malta where the unthinkable has happened: we have struck oil, and everyone is going to be rich beyond their wildest dreams (except for one tiny little detail: the oil is located underneath the buried bodies at the Addolorata cemetery but, who cares, right?). In the play, the omnipresence of Joseph Muscat (Mario Micallef), still Prime Minister in the year 2039, since he keeps winning one election after another because there’s basically no Opposition, is an uncomfortably familiar scenario. (Uncomfortable because, as of this very moment in 2015, Muscat has already taken on the aura of a man who has such power at his fingertips that he is basically unstoppable.) He faces a predicament, however, when he realizes that allowing Malta’s largest cemetery to be dug up because it is rich in oil is going too far, even by his standards. Those who have bankrolled him over the last 25 years, however, have other ideas.

I had been told by friends that much of what appears in the play seems to be unfolding before us right now, and they were right; which makes me wonder whether the author has some kind of prophetic talent or whether it is simply because certain things are almost predictable once someone attains that kind of heady power.  

While the play veered between subtle humour and flat-out Panto-like caricatures, the common thread running throughout deals with whether there is such a thing as political ideological left or whether big business has become our new ideology. Everything has a price tag and everyone can be bought. There were touches which spoke volumes in their symbolism – like the silvery figure of Manuel Dimech running up on his pedestal and striking his famous pose, as those below him discussed how they would be taking over Malta now that they’ve struck oil.

There are also the revealing discussions among the construction magnates who stay behind-the-scenes but who are in effect controlling the PM – their raucous laughter as they describe how Muscat thinks that he is the PM, is almost chilling in its realism.

The ineffectiveness of the Church is also lampooned, as a typical religious talking heads programme, is set against the showbiz backdrop of Gorden Manche (brilliantly played by Jean Pierre Busuttil) and his River of Love converts.

Now that the play has finished its run I won’t be spoiling anything by saying that the ending with its coup d’etat and apocalypse overtones left everyone a bit stunned. For all the laughter, I think the audience realized that the satire we had just watched had zeroed in on one too many home truths and that while we are alienated with living our lives, there are murky figures who are actually making decisions which affect us all.

It is true, as others have already pointed out, that there were some members of the audience who were more intent at laughing at the slapstick (especially the coarse, dimwitted Micallef brothers excellently portrayed by Manuel Cassar and Clive Piscopo) and at the vulgar (yet very true-to-life) use of colloquial Maltese words. But there were also many others who left the Manoel discussing what they had seen, almost subdued by the punch of the play’s impact.

I like to believe that the seed which was planted by this excellent biting satire will continue to take root, and that we will see more of this kind of theatre as a political statement. And while I very much doubt whether Muscat himself went to see it, I’m hoping that someone will pass along the script for him to read.