Directors of famous plays like Romeo and Juliet, staged by the MADC at San Anton, try desperately to give them a new garb, to give the familiar an interestingly unfamiliar look.
Three years ago, Tyrone Grima gave us his ‘Mintoff’s Malta’ production, that also imported lines in Maltese.
Now, we have a young and promising director, Luke Farrugia, giving us a production that tries to straddle the centuries between Shakespeare’s time and today’s by presenting us with two Romeos, one of them a contemporary one in shirt and trousers (Nicola Andrejevic).
And we are also given no fewer than three Juliets, the extra two being a contemporary version, wearing light frocks (played by Giulia Xuereb) and the ghost of Juliet (Jasmine Farrugia), this version presumably representing the glamorous/sad heroine of centuries of theatrical tradition.
I find the device uninteresting and, indeed, tiresome. But fortunately Farrugia makes up for it by his achievements in other areas. The production is brisk and never falters, and it throbs with young people’s zest for living, followed by their bottomless despair when misfortune badly upsets their loving relationships and plans for joyful futures.
It is the rhythms of the action, the colours of the set and costumes (by Isabel Warrington), the variety of music which so wonderfully binds the last tragic scenes, and the choreography (by Francesco J. Nicodeme) that makes the entrancing Queen Mab scene (spoken with great bravura by Christian Galea’s excellent Mercutio) so gripping, that make this production memorable. Farrugia, I must point out, has made many cuts, not all of them wise, to the text; the ending is really by Farrugia with acknowledgements to Shakespeare.
The cast itself is also very largely young. The most notable exception is Stefan Cachia Zammit ‘s Capulet, a man whose bonhomie is swiftly shattered when someone like the violent Tybalt (David Chircop)intends to spoil a party. This bonhomie is shattered even more when his only beloved daughter Juliet dares to oppose her father’s plans to have her marry the young nobleman Paris (Jovan Pisani).
Indeed, I have rarely seen Capulet’s anger expressed so fearfully, so unrestrainedly, as in this production.
We get a hint that Capulet does not get on well with Lady Capulet (an aloof Laura Best, who grabs one’s attention on each appearance in a stunning and colourful costume that is a touch grotesque) when she angrily brushes off her older husband’s hint about having sex. The text makes her jealous of her husband, who may be a womaniser.
For once, I actually took much notice of Benvolio
Other older actors are Michael Mangion as a stern and fearfully dignified Prince of Verona and Coryse Borg’s Lady Montague, a smallish part. One would have expected the key character, Friar Laurence, denoted as elderly by the text, to have been played by an older actor, but he is here played by a young, but well-proven actor, Joe Zammit.
Farrugia’s view of the Friar is that he is so beloved by everyone, Capulet or Montague, in Verona that he is even invited to the famous ball. And, like some priests we all know, he is prone to hug one and all, male or female. He is a bit of a know-all and Zammit gives only a hint of hesitation when the Friar agrees to marry the two lovers clandestinely and later gives Juliet the death-simulating potion.
Shakespeare, however, gives this character a couple of good speeches in the last scene where he confesses what he has done and pronounces himself ready to accept the punishment that may be imposed on him.
Farrugia has cut these speeches made to the Prince and the dead lovers’ families. Instead, he has him come on stage, only to be arrested by two toughs and hauled offstage before he can say a word.
Thus, a key character is removed from the audience’s view before he can ‘impeach and excuse’ himself, as the author designed. When Farrugia matures, he will probably be much more reluctant to meddle so much with the great dramatist’s intentions.
For most people, the play is about the star-crossed lovers, all other characters being of trifling importance. What is certainly correct is that the playing of the lovers will determine any production’s success.
Philip Leone Ganado’s Romeo, like his Romeo in Grima’s 2012 production, is much in love and intense, but not particularly romantic. Projecting one’s voice so as to be audible to an open-air audience is not very easy. Leone Ganado is always very audible, but here his voice was sounding a trifle high-pitched. I missed the organ notes that can make a poetic speech so memorable.
This notwithstanding, this is a gallant Romeo, very much in love not just with Juliet but also with being alive. The great balcony scene with Erica Muscat’s Juliet may not have reached poetic heights, but was clearly an encounter between two young people who have just found themselves astonishingly and delightedly in love.
Muscat’s is a Juliet who may still be just a girl, but is able to surrender completely to the strength of love.
Her playing is weaker in the scenes following Romeo’s exile, where Juliet has to cope with her parents’ sudden demands, while letting the audience know all the time what she is hiding. She made up for this in the final scene, where she finds Romeo lying dead next to her.
Antonella Mifsud (playing Nurse) is not a natural comic, but she managed to get a few good laughs. She is, rightly I think, a youngish Nurse. Her faintly Maltese intonation set her, again rightly, aside from the upper folk.
Her teasing of Juliet about Romeo’s intentions was well-managed, and her brave opposition to Capulet’s diktat for Juliet to marry Paris, was followed, surprisingly but perhaps realistically, by her volteface in advising Juliet to obey her despotic father.
For once, I actually took much notice of Benvolio, a secondary character, spoken beautifully and performed without undue emphasis by Roger Tirazona. I suspect we shall see him in a major Shakespearean role one of these days.
• And with that, I finish my last drama review written for this newspaper.
With the exception of one year when I was away in London, I have written regularly for this paper for over 50 years, starting in 1963.
A collection of my reviews would give a good idea of Maltese theatre's development over half a century.
They also record the many outstanding foreign performers we have seen on our stages.
I have happy memories of the people I have worked with on this paper and notably the late George Sammut, who gave me the job originally and that great editor Laurence Grech, whose great confidence in me and eagle eye in discerning errors in my writing made my task so much easier.
My thanks also go to Ramona Depares, the paper's culture editor in recent years, whose interest in the performing arts has been and remains notable.
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