The strange case of Rosaria Mifsud’s ambiguous sexuality created controversy three centuries ago. Paul Xuereb finds that it makes for interesting theatre even in this day and age.

Marta Kwitt is a theatre group founded by Immanuel Mifsud, now a well-known author, in 1996.

The group went into a long hibernation in the early years of the century, out of which it emerged this year with the production of a curious and intriguing piece based on a historical figure, one Rosaria Mifsud who lived in Luqa in the second half of the 18th century.

Il-Każ Stramb ta’ Rosaria Mifsud was first performed in the building of the National Archives in Rabat last May and performed once more in the large and impressive reading-room of the National Library last week; it was this performance that I saw.

Directed by Mifsud, this very theatrical experience was described to me by Albert Gatt, one of the two performers, as “story-telling”, and so a successor to last October’s event, which I did not attend, about the Maltese carnival of bygone days.

From what I can gather, this latter performance had a strong academic element, consisting of presentations by a number of scholars, whereas in Rosaria Mifsud, there was just a short introduction by Mifsud and the drawing of the audience’s attention by the performers to the fact that the events presented were capable of more than one interpretation.

In fact, apart from interpreting a number of characters, Gatt also acted as a mini-chorus. I should add that whatever the intention may have been, the result is good, gripping theatre presented in an amusingly effective way.

Rosaria (her first baptismal name, never used by her or her parents, was the very curious Primitiva) Mifsud was born in Luqa, offspring of Gużè and Tereża Mifsud.

Rosaria’s father was an apparently well-to-do dealer in animal fodder. The problem was that as the child grew, she began to look more and more masculine. When she was a grown woman, she had never menstruated and there were strong rumours in the small village that Rosaria was making sexual advances to other village women. In reality, people thought, she was a man and not a woman.

The result is good, gripping theatre presented in an amusingly effective way

Things rose to a climax in 1774, Malta then being ruled by the stern Spaniard Francisco Ximenes. According to one version, the scandalous happenings were brought to the Grandmaster’s attention by reports from the village. The other version – a much more interesting one – was that it was Rosaria herself who sought an interview with Ximenes, and asked him to declare her a man.

What is certain is that Ximenes, or his advisers, took the matter seriously. Villagers were questioned by officials, and Rosaria was closely examined by a commission of medical men who included Michel Angelo Grima, a famous Maltese surgeon and anatomist.

The commission concluded that Rosaria had both a small vagina and a penis (not a large one) and this, together with her not having any normal woman’s breasts, made them conclude that she was to be regarded as a male.

In fact, some of the village men interrogated by the Grandmaster’s officials told them quite plainly they had seen Rosaria urinating in the open against a wall, like men do.

One of the piece’s most effective scenes is the one narrating the medical commission’s official visit to the Mifsud home in Luqa, with a crowd of villagers watching the Mifsud door and waiting for developments.

This scene, and a number of others, are depicted in a semi-comic style by Gatt and Daniela Vella Blagojevic, but despite the sometimes gigglesome substance of what is being depicted or narrated, the comedy never gets out of hand in these scenes. It is only when Gatt is impersonating the parish priest, conducting Rosaria’s baptism, or hearing the confession of a female villager that the fun goes over the top.

The piece is performed without set, of course. The only props are a couple of respectably old-looking chairs and a table on which two wigs are shown. There is also a stand on which documents have been placed for reading by Gatt and Vella Blagojevic.

The two perform several roles quite deftly, whether male or female. Superficial attention is paid to the characterisation of some of the personages who appear, such as a succession of male villagers, all called Indrì (not surprisingly since the village’s patron saint is St Andrew), who are not choosy about the words they use to describe what they have seen.

I greatly wonder if our national library has ever before witnessed such inelegant words being spoken aloud during an official event on its premises. The interrogation of the midwife who had delivered Rosaria still leaves us perplexed after over two centuries. Why should such an experienced person have failed to notice the newborn child’s sexual ambiguity? Was she given a good sum by the father to keep mum about something so embarrassing in those days?

The end result of all that happened in Luqa in 1774 was that Rosaria was officially declared to be a man. The script says that we do not know what name she was given after this point and indeed what kind of life she was allowed to lead from then on. Even today, when people are becoming much more tolerant, those who change sex still find life difficult at certain moments.

I look forward to seeing more such productions, away from the main-stream, by Mifsud and Marta Kwitt.

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