thu 06/08/2020

theartsdesk in Malta: After Censorship | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Malta: After Censorship

theartsdesk in Malta: After Censorship

Edward Bond’s drama staged on a Mediterranean island struggling to shake off the weight of its Catholic past

Grey eminence: Edward Bond in Malta to see a production of his 'Olly's Prison'Joseph A Borg

Legendary English playwright Edward Bond doesn’t often come to Malta, but when he does, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. After the first performance of his Olly’s Prison — a stage version of the 1993 BBC television series — Bond takes the stage for a Q&A. Dr Paul Xuereb, who is the Mediterranean island’s premiere theatre critic, asks him: “Why are your plays so violent?” “They’re not violent,” replies Bond quietly. “Read the play.”

Bond goes on to explain that Olly’s Prison, now enjoying a short run at Valletta’s St James Cavalier Theatre in a co-production between St James Cavalier and Unifaun theatre company, is about silence. The characters, he argues, are not violent because they are depraved, but because they cannot tolerate silence. “Silence,” says the playwright, “does not cause the violence but it releases it.” Because society does not understand itself, the characters in the play — especially Mike and his daughter Sheila — do not understand themselves. And the result is violence. “Whenever we cannot speak and cannot hear there is and always will be violence.”

Bond writes about violence as naturally as Jane Austen writes about mannersBond once also said that he writes about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners, director Chris Cooper reminds me over coffee in the cafe of the St James Cavalier Theatre. He is one of Bond’s leading interpreters in the UK, having staged eight new plays of his for Birmingham’s Big Brum company since becoming artistic director in 1999, and his version of Olly’s Prison is as powerful, truthful and dark as the chiaroscuro of the Caravaggio painting in Valletta’s cathedral (pictured overleaf), which he cites as an inspiration. 

With its story of how the widower Mike murders his daughter Sheila (played by Manuel Cauchi and Simone Spiteri, pictured below) and then faces the consequences (prison, release and revenge), Olly’s Prison is an uncomfortable play, with a tense beginning and several excruciating scenes. Compellingly acted by an excellent Maltese cast, it left members of the audience visibly shaken. Cooper defends its relevance, saying, “I see the play at home in England and on the streets and in the cafes and restaurants of Malta, on the faces of the buildings and people in the street; more importantly I see the play in myself.”

Cooper argues that the play is a contemporary tragedy. But that “our world is more complex today than the world that Euripides or Shakespeare wrote about — our experience is more fractured and confusing. Olly’s Prison lays our situation bare for us to see ourselves in it; to see the self in society and vice versa.” He is in Malta at the invitation of Unifaun’s Adrian Buckle, whose theatre company specialises in staging the best of British cutting edge drama: Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Martin McDonagh.

Since he set up Unifaun in 2000, Buckle has dreamt of staging Bond’s work and now his dream has been realised. But his relationship with the Maltese authorities hasn’t always been sunny. In 2009, he clashed with them over a production of Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson’s Stitching. With its heavy Catholic heritage, the island practised theatre censorship in a way that reminds me of the worst excesses of the British Lord Chamberlain in the 1950s.

They banned Stitching because the Censorship Board, officially known as the Film and Stage Classification Board (but don’t let that fool you), thought that its content was too controversial: swearing on stage is frowned on in Malta. And the censors were not keen on, in the words of one court judgment, the “extensive use of vulgar, obscene and blasphemous language that exalts perversion, vilifies the right to life”, makes “fun of the suffering of women in the Holocaust, and reduces women to a simple object of sexual satisfaction.” Having seen the play in London, I’m led to wonder at the lurid imaginations of these censors since Neilson certainly doesn’t do these things.

But these smut hounds have had a long history of sniffing out sexual and blasphemous content from Maltese culture. In October 1989, Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ was banned. In 1992 Dr Alex Comfort’s The New Joy of Sex was impounded by Customs for being too “explicit”, followed by a ban on the “pornographic” movie Basic Instinct. In February 1996, John Webster’s 1613 play, The Duchess of Malfi, was censored by the Ministry of the Arts, which ordered a visiting British troupe, Cheek by Jowl, to cut a scene where the Duchess, about to be killed, kicks a small crucifix across the stage. The play was being performed at the Manoel Theatre, Valletta’s equivalent of our National Theatre.

Despite the defeat of Buckle’s appeals in the Maltese courts, he stresses the fact that he is determined to stage Stitching. He is planning to go to the European Court of Human Rights, and it looks like time is on his side. Since Malta joined the EU in 2004, there has been pressure for the country to modernise. Theatre censorship was finally abolished last year (although the ban on Stitching still stands) and the prospect of being a European Capital of Culture in 2018 has concentrated official minds on the image of the island.

To me, Malta still remains in a timewarp. At the entrance of the cathedral, a sign forbids the wearing of “stilettos and narrow heels”, and shawls are available to cover impious bare shoulders. This sense of a Catholic culture being preserved in aspic, having survived 150 years of British colonialism, remains strong. The streets of Valletta are full of British red telephone and post boxes, but along with the clouds of incense pouring out of churches there’s a strong whiff of Talibanic restrictions.

But today there are also signs of change. Since independence in 1964, the island population of 450,000 has embraced democracy, and electoral turnout is always more than 90 per cent. During my visit, there was a general election (9 March) and, on a hot and sunny day, long patient queues outside the polling stations. The election of the Labour Party, which won after some 25 years of conservative Nationalist rule, suggests an appetite for change. As its supporters took to the streets, waving flags and honking klaxons, people partied late into the night.

But will this change help theatre in Malta? As outsiders, Cooper and Bond (pictured left) refrain from commenting, and some of the island's cultural players are equally circumspect. Chris Gatt, who runs the St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity (historic entrance, pictured below), with its 150-seat in-the-round theatre (where Olly’s Prison is playing) and arts cinema, says, “The question will be whether they will let us get on with the job or whether we are going to be asked to become mediocre to seem to be populist,” he says. He describes the centre as “a laboratory, with a mix of different genres and activities” and his mission as focusing on the challenges of the contemporary.

Buckle acknowledges the help that he was given during the furore over Stitching by the then Shadow Culture Minister Owen Bonnici and Shadow Education Minister Evarist Bartolo. “They even came to see a rehearsal of the play,” he says. “The new Prime Minister Joseph Muscat did not, but he spoke clearly in our favour when the then Nationalist Minister for Culture Dolores Cristina kicked us out of St James Cavalier, where we were rehearsing.” Other than that, “all I can add is that the Labour programme for culture looks very promising. Whether they can deliver is a different question all together.”

Toni Attard, one of the authors of the island’s cultural policy, says, “With the capital of culture around the corner nobody can afford to slow things down. The manifesto of the Labour Party gave due importance to culture and there is political consensus about the importance of creativity. In the past three years cultural spending has increased by 60 per cent and we expect to see further investment.”

Award-winning young playwright Simone Spiteri, who set up the all-female theatre company Du Theatre in 2004 and also plays Sheila in Olly’s Prison, says that she hopes that “the new Labour government will make sure that it keeps building on the foundations that a few very hard-working individuals have laid over the recent years. Also, more importantly, I hope that the new government will also help the culture sector realise its true potential — using the truly talented local artists both here and away from our shores.”

As well as putting on the best of British drama, it would be great for Malta to develop more of its own playwriting talents.

These smut hounds have had a long history of sniffing out sexual and blasphemous content

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Liked this article though I found the reference to Bond not suffering fools gladly with respect to a question by "Malta's premiere theatre critic" a trifle patronising. But then we are resigned to this as natives. Spot on re theatre, writings and censorship though.

Glad you found the acting great -credit to the players involved. I thought they did very well too.

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