Patrick Marber’s exquisite script for Closer first hit London’s West End in 1997. The play went on to win the 1998 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play, and reached new audiences when it was adapted by Marber himself for the screen in 2004, when it featured a stellar cast that included Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Clive Owen and an especially unforgettable Natalie Portman. 

It is a beautifully written piece: crude, sharp and witty all at once, and 20 years down the line its themes remain as relevant and current as ever.

The play is essentially one that sets truth as its central theme. We meet four characters, all living in London – Dan, Larry, Alice and Anna: journalist, doctor, stripper and photographer – who at the start of the play are complete strangers to each other and who by the end of it find their lives to be inextricably linked in twisted forms of intimate personal relationships.

All four characters, who each have strained relationships with the truth, are themselves desperately seeking their own fundamental truths.

To achieve this aim they use intimacy as their primary currency, trading in it, using and abusing of it, rewarding and withholding it as the action goes through alternating cycles of tragedy and dark comedy.

The plot is a complex one, fuelled mainly by the character of Dan, played by Jean Marc Cafá, a narcissistic anti-hero who manipulates the other three characters into forming a series of intertwining relationships between them as they each ebb and flow in and out of their personal relationships with each other.

In a play that relies so heavily on intimacy as its key currency, the risk of the chemistry between the characters coming across as contrived and unrealistic becomes a high one, and unfortunately the production didn’t quite land when it came to its credibility. I found myself struggling to believe much of what was being spoken on stage largely because the chemistry between the characters was almost entirely absent. The words being uttered were, quite simply, not matched by the physicality and passion that were needed to convey their power.

Dan (Cafá) trades on his innate confidence in order to seduce Anna and Alice, played by Alexandra Camilleri Warne and Nadia Vella respectively, at alternating moments in time. Cafá’s interpretation was disappointingly timid in this respect, and his performance was unconvincing as a rogueish cad convinced of his own sex appeal. His attempts at being physical with his partners were in direct contradiction to the passionate words spilling forth from his mouth and, as a result, it became hard to believe why he would bounce from Alice to Anna and back again when he showed decidedly little physical interest in either.

I found myself struggling to believe much of what was being spoken on stage

Vella, as Alice, similarly depends on her own self-confidence in her beauty and sexual allure as the primary driver that allows her to hide and repress the darker truths about her, using them as a smokescreen lest Dan, and eventually Larry – played by Mikhail Basmadjian – should discover them. It is only in death that the truth from which she has been frantically running is ultimately revealed.

Here again, Vella’s performance fell short and failed to convey any sort of self-confidence in Alice’s beauty and sexual charm in any believable way. Vella and Cafá’s frequent scenes together unfortunately fell flat and very rarely worked to a convincing degree. This was a pity as the script offered wonderful opportunities for both actors to shine in ways that they have often done in the past on the Maltese stage.

In playing Anna, a sophisticated photographer, Camilleri Warne was permitted to get away with a greater degree of aloofness. Contradictingly, however, she has an aching need to be loved and there are moments in the character’s development when her guard is lowered and we get to see glimpes of her vulnerability.

Camilleri Warne’s performance delivered a somewhat linear performance that lacked the nuance required of the character. As a result I again failed to be convinced why she had passionately fallen for Dan, after having been partnered up with Larry, as her actions failed to match up with the lines she delivered, otherwise beautifully.

The only performer of the night who attempted to deliver a more convincing performance was Basmadjian as Larry. Larry is motivated to use intimacy as a means of climbing the social ladder; he is embarrassed of his working class origins and despite being a dermatologist of some success, he nonetheless feels he is unable to achieve his full potential because of those origins.

Basmadjian delivered a performance that was less rigid than that of his other performers and which was the more believable of the bunch – but in this he was on his own. This means that despite the polished performance he tried to deliver, the fire in each scene rapidly petered out as it was not countered or picked up by any of the other characters.

“What does a guy have to do for a bit of intimacy in here?” he yells out desperately at one point; unfortunately it was a question I too asked myself at several points throughout the show.

Visually the set, designed by Romualdo Moretti, worked splendidly. Composed of a number of shiny boxes and light-filled cuboids and set on a highly-lustred floor, it served as the perfect balance against a play that is wordy and sometimes exceedingly so.

The set’s minimalism meant that it did not in any way detract from the focus on the action and the dialogue. The projections against the backdrop also worked extremely efficiently and allowed scenes to flow rapidly from one to the next without allowing the pace of the production to sag. Indeed, were it not for the severe lack of chemistry between the characters, all other aspects of the production including the visual and artistic aspects worked extremely well.

Masquerade’s decision to produce the play was a brave one, which was undermined solely by the inadvisable casting choices. The production, especially under the veteran hands of its director Anthony Bezzina, had all the ingredients and potential to be one of the best shows to feature on the 2019 cultural calendar, but sadly, it failed to hit the mark.

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