Valletta 2018 artistic director Mario Philip Azzopardi threatened to use political connections to block artists’ access to public funds while repeatedly boasting of being a “political appointee”, former colleagues claim.

Artists who spoke to the Times of Malta said they had noted what they defined as a pattern of serious abusive behaviour by the veteran producer on various theatre and film productions he was involved with in recent years.

“Mario is all about control. It’s hard to explain what it’s really like. He camouflages his tirades as ‘creative differences’. It’s about stripping the other person of all their dignity,” said Leif Bristow, a Canadian film producer who collaborated with Mr Azzopardi on three films between 2014 and 2015.

“At a dress rehearsal for one of his plays, I saw him going after every actor with every sort of vulgar word imaginable. I couldn’t stay and watch that,” he said.

Earlier this week, V18 deputy artistic director Sean Buhagiar resigned after a breakdown in his relationship with Mr Azzopardi stemming from a heated argument on the set of Ħabbilni Ħa Nirbaħ, a play Mr Buhagiar was directing for Mr Azzopardi’s company Staġun Teatru Malti.

Veteran set designer Adrian Mamo also quit the play at the Manoel Theatre accusing Mr Azzopardi of behaving aggressively and dismantling elements of the set during an earlier argument.

Mr Bristow told this newspaper yesterday the first assistant director on one of the films the two collaborated on had also quit in similar circumstances after “daily” personal attacks by Mr Azzopardi.

“Every day he was screaming at the top of his lungs at someone. It was destructive to the whole team,” Mr Bristow said. “One day, we gave him 30 minutes to change his behaviour or we’d remove him from the set. I’ve never had to deal with anyone in that capacity before.”

Mr Azzopardi’s appointment as V18 artistic director has been consistently questioned by prominent voices in the artistic community. Prior to his appointment in 2014, he directed a Labour Party television advert for the 2013 general election and openly endorsed Joseph Muscat.

Mr Bristow said Mr Azzopardi himself repeatedly linked his appointment to his work for the Labour Party, saying the government “owed” him the position because he helped them win the election. The claim was backed up by another source who said Mr Azzopardi had spoken on the same lines while on official business as V18 artistic director.

“Mario has said on numerous occasions that he would use the connections he had to stop people from getting funds after they clashed with him,” Mr Bristow said, adding he considered this an empty threat. “To the contrary, I have found the government, and the Film Commission under Engelbert Grech, to operate with the highest levels of integrity,” he added.

When contacted, Mr Azzopardi strongly denied claims of political influence: “B***s***. F****** lies,” he said, insisting that while he made no secret of his support for the Labour Party, he had “earned” his appointment over the course of a 40-year career, during which he was nominated for a number of top awards.

He did not deny any of the reported incidents of abusive behaviour but said they were normal occurrences in professional theatre around the world. He added that what happened in his private companies was not relevant to his work as V18 artistic director.

“All I’ve done wrong is to succeed in Maltese theatre,” he said. “I’ve created 11 original productions in Maltese. You don’t get that far by letting everyone do what they want; you do it by showing leadership. If that means using some verbal attitudes that we’re not accustomed to in Malta, so be it.

“In Malta, artists feel they have a divine right to do as they please. This is not how it works on a professional level.”

Abruptly changing his tone at the end of a highly-agitated conversation peppered with foul language, Mr Azzopardi said he remained committed to V18 and was “very sad” Mr Buhagiar was resigned, adding he still respected him as an artist, describing his work on Ħabbilni Ħa Nirbaħ as “stellar”.

“V18 will go on and we have a fantastic programme lined up for the Maltese people,” Mr Azzopardi said.

V18 chairman defends Mr Azzopardi

Video: Mark Zammit Cordina

Valletta 2018 chairman Jason Micallef this morning defended Mr Azzopardi’s work, refusing to comment on what he called a “private dispute”.

“I have full confidence in the work Mario Philip Azzopardi was contracted to do for V18. When I feel that the work is suffering, I will take the necessary steps,” Mr Micallef said, responding to questions at a V18 press conference.

“I am not aware of any problems in Mr Azzopardi’s working relationships with other members of the foundation. I don’t know most of the people who have come out against him in the press so I have nothing to comment.”

Mr Micallef repeated the line – often used by Mr Azzopardi – that disputes of this nature were common in the artistic world, and said he retained hope that the professional relationship between Mr Azzopardi and Mr Buhagiar could be mended.

Verbal altercation

An incident involving Mr Azzopardi unfolded on the set of Sibna ż-Żejt at the Manoel Theatre last year. According to e-mails seen by this newspaper, Mr Azzopardi threatened to call the police to have playwright Wayne Flask ejected from the theatre following a verbal altercation between the two on proposed cuts to the play.

“I decided to stay away from theatre for good, for if those are the ‘real workings of professional theatre’, as Mr Azzopardi often says, I don’t wish to be part of them,” Mr Flask told this newspaper when contacted.

“Creative disagreements are bound to happen but I don’t take bullying and shouting. I always respect those I work with and one should be afforded the same level of respect, irrespective of executive authority or any other title.”

Mario Philip Azzopardi on...

Chris Gatt (established theatre director and former general manager of St James Cavalier)Chris Gatt (established theatre director and former general manager of St James Cavalier)

"What has he done? He was at St James’ for 14 years and he thinks he’s qualified to speak. All he did in that time was fix the toilets"

Wayne Flask (blogger and author of Sibna ż-Żejt)Wayne Flask (blogger and author of Sibna ż-Żejt)

"Who the f*** is he? Let me hear these claims [about abusive behaviour] from somebody on my level and then we’ll talk"

Leif Bristow (Canadian film producer)Leif Bristow (Canadian film producer)

"He came to Malta expecting to find a bunch of savages"

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