Ġesù, mmorru l-Ġetsemani?

L-Għarusa, Ġużè Diacono’s one-act mystical play, has been revivified after laying dormant for the past three decades. It emerges anew with some modifications, restructured and reinterpreted by the writer and thinker Immanuel Mifsud in collaboration with artist Austin Camilleri who designed the play’s ethereal garb.

The production by the national theatre company Teatru Malta, in co-production with Heritage Malta, is being staged at the Knights’ Armoury in Vittoriosa, showing between October 21-23 and from October 25 till tomorrow. It marks the playwright’s 110th birthday and the 20th anniversary of his death.

Tuteppi (Jacob Piccinino)Tuteppi (Jacob Piccinino)

The narrative centres on the mystical experiences of the play’s main character, Sister Wistina, who endures great loss and suffers the ensuing trauma. After entering a nunnery upon the death of her beloved, she claims to be regularly visited by Jesus Christ with whom she believes she has an amorous relationship. 

L-Għarusa is indeed an intense production. There is a weightiness to the Armoury in Vittoriosa that lends itself perfectly to the occasion, made only more acute by Camilleri’s interventions to make the place more monastical.

While waiting in the armoury’s courtyard on the opening night, wine not far from reach, many seemed oddly unruptured by the large, imposing crosses like stakes outside the main building gate, sacred music filling the air. Those who paid attention to the wooden structures were perhaps unsure what to feel while filing past them up the stone steps to the main performance space.

Crossing the threshold into a world of light and white fabric, we shuffle through what Camilleri describes as an ora et labora entrance hall. Perhaps the challenge of this area was its limited size and that audiences may have felt they could not linger long here to see the items within before moving on to the main space. This transpired into a somewhat hasty, confusing viewing. 

A scene from Diacono's play.A scene from Diacono's play.

The main stage comprised two poles with the stage between them, shrouded by fabric and light. I was relieved that the light was as perfectly articulated as it was; I suspect an unfavourable kind of white light may have driven me into delirium. Instead, the light itself was fabric-like, textured, immensely pleasing – its haziness and gradual dissipation clear and effective.

Jacob Piccinino’s characterisation of Tuteppi was an especially convincing, plausible adaptation. The gardener’s stammers and ticks spoke volumes and induced some level of discomfort (are we made uncomfortable by Tuteppi or our rection to him?)

Indeed an intense production

He is bid by Sister Wistina, played with great skill by Marceline Galea, to bring her flowers that she may give her divine suitor (but not violets as they are harbingers of death).

A stony Sister Tarċisja (Moira Muscat) pokes at Tuteppi with suggestive taunts as the distraught religious novice Marija (Charlotte Formosa) threatens irrevocable despair. Above them is a crucified Christ splayed nude on the wall.

Perhaps adding to the disquiet is the palpable erotic element running through the whole act, which we may consider out of place among the characters before us, whether chaste by vocation or physical impediment.

Mifsud’s direction was itself based on the knowledge that sexual imagery has often been invoked to describe ineffable spiritual concepts, among them the idea of union with Christ. 

The mystics of the Middle Ages have often used the erotic to codify transcendental experience, made manifest through ecstasy and transgression.

In his reinterpretation, Mifsud expands the role of the Song of Songs in the work, which Diacono uses only briefly but for the same reason, namely to act as a device evidencing that erotic love finds a home also among the books of the bible, and within religious experience by extension, capturing both the pleasure of desire and also the doubts that belie it.

Another eloquent moment of the play.Another eloquent moment of the play.

The French philosopher Simone Weil, herself sometimes considered a modern mystic, wrote in one of her Notebooks that “to reproach mystics with loving God by means of the faculty of sexual love is as though one were to reproach a painter with making pictures by means of colours composed of material substances.

“We haven’t anything else with which to love,” she says.

Mifsud’s direction held this consideration as a running thread in his reinterpretation of Diacono’s Għarusa: that erotic love and its manifestation in religious life, as with the mystics of old, is not incompatible with the monastic and the scared. Transgression too, as can be interpreted from the very presence of the Song of Songs in the Bible, is a tool with which to get closer to God – a call for transgressions without which the experience of God is not possible.

L-Għarusa by Ġużè Diacono is being staged at the Knights’ Armoury in Vittoriosa for its final two shows this evening and tomorrow at 8pm. For tickets visit here

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