Socio-political satire has been absent from our national theatre for quite some time, but it seems to have now made a long overdue comeback thanks in no small dose to Staġun Teatru Malti’s programme at the Manoel Theatre.
Sibna ż-Żejt brings to the Maltese stage a name familiar to many in the field of local socio-political satire. Wayne Flask has been writing scathing pieces online for some time under the pen names Der Heckler and Satiristan. It is good to see his talent for wit and acerbic observation of local affairs being now put to use in a theatrical setting.
The text is built on a wonderfully memorable premise; it’s the year 2036 and Malta strikes oil right under the Addolorata Cemetery under a Labour Party that has been in government uninterruptedly for twenty three years under the leadership of (the increasingly megalomaniac) Joseph Muscat.
Meanwhile, the Church and the PN are fast disintegrating into oblivion.
It would be a bold decision from PBS to commission a similar piece
The only problem is that a journalist has revealed that the land in question had been sneakily purchased only recently from government by members of the powerful land developers lobby at a fraction of its real value.
It transpires that they knew about the presence of the oil and engineered a natural disaster in the area to lower its value. Sound familiar?
Flask took the bold decision to retain the real names of the characters he satirises and build a vision of the future firmly based on the current reality in our island. On the other hand, there is little attempt at impersonating any of the characters. This possibly makes the production less clever than it could have been but stronger and unambiguous in its message.
The text is clearly influenced by Flask’s childhood exposure to Italian satire on Rai3 and the format of the piece is in fact closer to a TV script than a theatre script, with a large number of scenes made up of characters interacting with an unseen interviewer.
Despite the fact that I found some scenes overlong and in need of some judicious editing, the narrative was clear and kept my interest right to the end.
Possibly, Flask has attempted to take a swipe at too many sacred cows in one piece and the script would have benefitted from concentrating on fewer issues and characters.
Director Sean Buhagiar once again rose to the occasion of successfully bringing a technically complex script to life within the limits of the Manoel Theatre.
Given the large number of scenes and sizable cast, this was no mean feat and he is to be commended for simplifying the visual elements and stagecraft to ensure that they do not disturb the flow of the narrative.
His use of two large video screens were used to excellent effect, not only to introduce the characters but to enhance the on-stage action with some well-executed graphics and videography.
His use of light, sound and colour gave the entire piece a visual elegance that owes more than a nod to TV variety shows making the production entertaining to watch regardless of one’s feeling towards the content.
The large cast was made up of a variety of familiar and new faces. Mario Micallef always excels at character acting and he took to the role of the aging PM with much gusto, clearly relishing the possibility of satirising a real life character.
Simon Schembri played his chief of staff Keith Schembri with equal doses of loyalty and resigned exasperation with his master. Together, they made a formidable duo that had echoes of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Certainly, the most memorable performance was however that of Clive Piscopo who played the simpleton Rokku Micallef with great skill, wonderful charm and spot-on comic timing. I certainly hope that this will not be Flask’s first and only foray in the theatre. We need more local writers who are not afraid to expose what really lies beneath the surface and shout out that the emperor has indeed no clothes on.
I suspect, however it will be on the small screen rather than on stage that he will excel. It would be a bold decision from PBS to commission a similar piece, but it might make people like me want to watch local TV once again.
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