Tebut Isfar, by Clare Azzopardi, is a story about Ġorġ, an Elvis-loving coffin maker who lives with his daughter, and whose wife is mysteriously missing from their lives.
His only companion in life is Yasmina, his dreamer daughter who, at 18 years of age, still plays with dolls and makes up fables about existence outside the coffins in which she sleeps, plays, and lives.
The father and daughter get a new look on life outside of their boxy garage when Phyllis comes knocking at their door. She is well-dressed, decked in designer clothing and wants to order a custom-made yellow coffin.
Next, Gustav, a development mogul, also comes banging on their door. He expects Ġorġ and Yasmina to pack up and leave by offering them a new apartment and a new life. However, what he can’t understand is that things just can’t be packed and left behind.
In her foreword, Azzopardi says that the play is written to bring to the forefront the gentrification happening in Valletta, and how the little people are having their memories and everyday lives crushed under the high-rise plans.
Although the play, directed by Marcelle Teuma, was an enjoyable experience, and the humour serves its purpose thanks to the great casting and Leigh-Ann Abela’s excellent comedic timing, I still have a lot of questions in my mind.
The characters portrayed did not feel fully-fledged, and much about them remains unexplained, at times making them feel shallow and stereotypical. This is evident in scenes such as when Ġorġ talks of the village gossip and the neighbours, and about the fact that he can neither read nor write. It also comes through when Yasmina talks about cheating on her boyfriend in his shop to get back at him for staying home to watch films while she is out working.
It might seem like a bleak view of life, but it’s very realistic
Although these are plausible scenarios, portraying them in this way perpetuates stories we’ve often heard about the residents of Valletta, particularly those who live in the periphery of the city.
Gentrification, although playing a part in the story, at times felt more like a haphazard side note.
The first time that the idea of Ġorġ and Yasmina moving is brought up is halfway through a conversation with Phyillis, unprompted. A few minutes later in the play, Yasmina makes the same reference. But how did we come to this? Would anyone really tell a complete stranger, out of the blue, that they will soon be asked to move out of their home to make way for a new building?
Throughout the play I felt that if the character of Gustav had been introduced earlier, it would have been better for the overall narrative. It would have offered a catalyst, followed by a strong second act of uncertainty, making the plot twist at the end stronger and merited.
The beautiful relationship between Ġorġ and his daughter is more of a main theme. Yasmina’s childish naivety is brought to life by the ever charming Mariele Zammit who, you could tell, was very physically invested in this play.
The staging is a rather clever metaphorical view of the contemporary trend of tearing down big, high-ceilinged buildings only to create boxes on top of boxes that one slides in and out of. The coffins are piled one on top of the other, with easy access. With Yasmina jumping in and out of bare coffins, which she and her father call ‘boxes’, and Phyllis getting trapped in one at one point, the props become the narrators and the storytellers.
When Phyllis and Gustav come in and disturb this family routine, the duo needs to fight the outside world to keep their memories and their dreams alive, only to have them taken away from them anyway due to the road they choose.
It might seem like a bleak view of life, but it’s very realistic, not only to Valletta but to residents all over Malta who are facing eviction or homelessness. This story is very much a fable of its time but it needs more structure in the way it is told.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us