We lead such fast lives that we are left with no time to be ill. Ira Melkonyan speaks to Veronica Stivala about her latest performance, The Pill, which explores our relationship with sickness, pill-popping and our health practitioners.

Can you imagine being able to buy a puppy or a bicycle in a pharmacy? Apparently, there exist campaigns which promote the prescription of such pets and pastimes in addition to the usual medicinal treatments.

This is just one example of the random and wonderful pieces of information on health Ira Melkonyan has stumbled upon in her research for a new theatre project entitled The Pill.

This is contemporary theatre group The Rubberbodies’ Collective newest production, which explores the role of medicine and illness in our lives. Melkonyan’s solo act will take audiences on a journey of autobiographical narratives, fanta-sies and associations, all exploring a surreal desire for an instant cure to all illnesses.

It came as a surprise to learn of this actress’s 10-year link with the scientific world. I had previously only associated her with the arts, through her work with The Rubberbodies’ Collective. Yet, she says: “I wanted to devise a performance on a science subject as this is what I studied at university, and it has been my line of work for almost five years now.”

Melkonyan, who has an MA in Microbiology and has worked in the pharmaceutical industry, admits that she is at a point of re-analysing this scientific line of her life from an arts and humanities perspective. The performance is directed by Jimmy Grima; new collaborator to the collective Sandra Banthorpe took art direction in her hands and Mario Sammut is the sound designer for the production. The second foreign collaborator is a Zagreb-based dramaturg Katarina Pejovic.

For the performance, which she has also written and will be performing solo, Melkonyan collected many stories about other people but she also had to draw from her own background. While exploring people’s relationship with medicine, she is also exploring her own relationship with science. She explains the importance of auto-biography in her work on The Pill.

For the performance, which she has also written and will be performing solo, Melkonyan collected many stories about other people

“I come from a post-Soviet country (Ukraine), which has a very rich but extremely different culture to that of Malta. Nevertheless, I cannot speak about my story without touching upon references to my Soviet childhood memories and becoming a grown-up in between these two very different worlds.”

To tap into the past, she and project collaborator Laszlo Upor from Hungary exchanged stories. This exchange triggered other narratives which led to the creation of a ‘universe of storylines’. Eventually, they had a mixture of Melkonyan’s real childhood memories, Upor’s stories and some bits and pieces of associations and observations. Most had some relation to medicine or medication, but the framework was a family story – partly real, partly fictitious, partly dreams and thoughts translated into poetry.

Melkonyan continues to grip my attention with more health-related stories. She has a number about people who burst out crying or confessed some wrong behaviour to a pharmacist. The role of pharmacists and doctors in our society is changing, she says. They are no longer simply the professionals who serve the needs of the people, but authorities in whom we place responsibility for our health. “We expect them to forgive us and in turn give us our health back through medicine,” she adds.

Melkonyan’s studies have also pointed her towards the contem-porary desire for instantaneous cures. One pharmacist noted how people often approach him for an instant remedy “because they don’t have time to be sick, they need to go to work, or to study for exams, or go on planned vacations”. She confesses how we are all guilty of this and have probably been desperate for such a magic cure at least once in our lives.

She notes how life is so fast that we are left with no choice but to stay constantly healthy. Melkonyan’s is a solo performance. This is not an easy feat to achieve, both from the performer’s side, and from that of keeping the audience captivated. Yet, Melkonyan points out that the audience will have an active role to play because the show is mini-malistic in its visual aspect. The focus is on science and stories so this will allow people to make their own associations and interpretations.

With all this talk of sickness and disease I’m curious to know what Melkonyan thinks is the worst of them all. “A common frame of mind that doctors, pharmacists, or pharmaceutical products are responsible for providing us with healthy bodies often pays off in a passive behaviour towards our lifestyle. The cure for this disease is to take responsibility for our own well-being. Paying attention to the developments in modern medicine does not mean following blindly everything there is on offer,” she says.

The Pill runs at The Splendid, Valletta, on Friday, Saturday and next Sunday and on March 28-30 at 8pm. Tickets are available at the door or online. This project is funded by the Malta Arts Fund, and supported by the School of Performing Arts, the Theatre Studies Department of the University of Malta and the Science in the City Festival.


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