Although she found it visually impressive, Veronica Stivala struggled with the content of the site-specific performance L-Ikla t-Tajba.
The imposingly beautiful Xwejni salt pans in Żebbuġ, Gozo, took on a new life during Teatru Malta’s site-specific performance L-Ikla t-Tajba.
With nature as one of its protagonists, the performance started before anyone had perhaps realised it had: as the audience walked down the dusty limestone pathway to the makeshift stage, they were invited to watch the sun set and only later was the audience told that the first actor (the sun), had already taken her bow. Slowly then did the actors, all dressed in black, begin to emerge from many corners of the beach. This exposition was very effective.
Taking inspiration from a Frenchman by the name of Grimaud, with direction and concept by Romanian Nona Ciobanu, this surreal performance was a journey of sorts, with characters from Greek mythology, Shakespeare and the Bible, while stretching to the limits the analogies of food, recipes and eating habits.
Unfortunately, although there certainly was a plethora of literary references, I was left struggling to get to grips with what the gist, what the story, was supposed to be and I wonder how clear this was in the minds of the creators too. The performance description on the Valletta2018 website shows photos of chefs in a kitchen, promoting the play as “the ultimate community meal through performance” and a “five-star dining experience that audiences can enjoy together”. Such descriptions led me to believe this would be some gastronomical/theatrical experience but apart from the free meal at the end of the show, it was nothing of the sort.
Speaking about delivering to expectations, the performance booklet told us to “feast (our) eyes on this delicious hour-long [sic] show”, although the Teatru Malta website says the show is 90 minutes long. The starting time was 7.30 pm and, while the actual performance started at 8pm, it finished long past 9. Not delivering on expectations certainly leaves audiences feeling shortchanged.
While I am a fan of storylines that are left open-ended, or that stimulate debate and discussion, I found this presentation too sketchy and would have preferred a more solid narrative. This was a devised performance, meaning that there was no script per se to start with, and the work was created together with the actors. Immanuel Mifsud’s poetry was also incorporated but, although beautiful in essence, was sadly edited and overly repeated, sometimes in translation, and did not contribute to a cohesive narrative.
While the performance lacked in storyline it was certainly stronger in its visual aspect. From start to finish, this was a veritably beautiful amalgamation of a stunning natural setting, a minimalist but stylish set (Peter Kosir), with a well-chosen atmospheric score by Steve Reich, and eye-catching and sometimes wonderfully weird props (Georgian Stefan), although the hanging rope ladder which was never used was frustrating.
The choreography was striking. However, I felt that the female ensemble that comprised Rebecca Camilleri, Ruth Borg, Liliana Portelli, Charlotte Grech, Ira Melkonyan, Julia Camilleri, Martina Buhagiar and Lisa Falzon was under-utilised. The same goes for the men – Pierre Stafrace and Paul Portelli – who are both gifted physical performers.
In particular, Borg stood out, her precise movements and striking facial expressions taking centre stage whenever she was on.
The performance would have benefited from having the audience sitting closer to the ‘stage’ in order to see, for instance, the scenes at the banquet table, those with the chef at his chopping table, as well as some of the choreographies in the seawater-filled saltpans.
While I greatly appreciate the immense hard work that must have gone into creating an outdoors performance such as this, even for simply having found such a stunning natural setting for this type of show, I wish I could have been allowed to enjoy a narrative journey that better incorporated the visual feast it was presenting.
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