Ever since the playwright Aristophanes publicly ridiculed the demagogue Cleon in his plays two thousand years ago, satire has delighted and offended society in equal measure.
Many (usually the victim or close friends and colleagues of the victim), would decry the satire as offensive or repulsive, while others enjoy the moment of comeuppance and admire the ability of the satirist to say something that otherwise couldn’t be said.
As a tool in a democratic society, satire has served the purpose of providing social commentary, divesting would-be emperors of their invisible clothes and generally providing moments of light relief in very dark corners.
They took down the pompous and the powerful, exposed the corrupt and the incompetent, the greedy and immoral. It pushed society to reach higher standards by saying the well-known but unsayable.
So how does this description fit in Mario Philip Azzopardi’s play Ix-Xiħa? Frankly, not very well.
What justification can there be for taking down the powerless victim of a yet unsolved murder?
How does one defend the continued pillorying of a journalist who no less than three judges have described as being the victim of state-sponsored harassment and bullying?
But perhaps most alarmingly, how should one react to yet another state-sponsored assault on a journalist even after her murder?
Because this is the crux of the matter.
The play was to be presented under the umbrella of the state-funded Staġun Teatru Malti, a now 10-year regularly rewarded state-sponsored present to the erstwhile ECOC Artistic Director of Valletta 2018 (remember that?), and the Manoel Theatre, another state-sponsored institution.
Staġun Teatru Malti is a publicly funded Mario Philip Azzopardi project with its own budget line. He is the sole person making the decisions.
However, the decision-making on the Manoel Theatre side is handled by the Manoel Theatre management committee. And this is where I would like to focus attention, as this is where the real crisis lies.
What justification can there be for taking down the powerless victim of a yet unsolved murder?- Chris Gatt
For the last decade or so, it has been led by its lacklustre chairman Michael Grech. It has been turned into a craven subservient board ready to bend backward to serve the peculiar whims and interests of whichever minister was running the culture portfolio.
It has lurched from one crisis to another. Whether through the appointment of not one but two CEOs unqualified for the jobs (apart from their close relationship with the minister concerned), the bungled attempt at replacing its artistic director, the appointment of an even less qualified person to lead the project of the theatre annex, the acceptance of the revised version this year of Azzopardi’s play (after it was refused two years ago when the theatre did have an artistic director), and now its cancellation of the production at the last minute.
Ironically it is this cancellation which is the proof (as if any more was needed) that this fawning management committee is not fit for purpose and needs to be thrown out as soon as possible.
Rather than sticking to their conviction, it bowed to ‘public pressure’ (although my suspicion is that the pressure it bowed to was more likely to be political rather than public).
In sum, their record has been frankly appalling, with decisions taken from above with no attention to the consequences to the reputation of the theatre.
This total lack of integrity and self-respect should make their traditional resignation letter to any new incoming minister effective immediately.
Unfortunately, I am not raising my hopes. The rot, which was never far off, really set in with the appointment of Owen Bonnici, who kept up the custom of personal appointments at the theatre during his first tenure as culture minister.
It may be good to remember he was also responsible for ordering the removal of flowers at the protest site on the Great Siege Monument.
We shall wait and see if he has learnt much over the last few years. Unlike what previous minister José Herrera thought, the country is blessed not with hobbyists but with an abundance of talent in the field, whether as creators or as sensitive administrators who understand how to nurture and grow both the talent and the audiences who can appreciate that talent. In economic terms also, this sector has a lot to offer this country.
It is our political taskmasters and their handpicked administrators who are the bumbling hobbyists effectively kneecapping the sector.
We shall have to wait and see if newly appointed culture minister Bonnici will allow the Manoel Theatre to turn a new leaf and be given the chance to.
As things stand we may have to see another farce played out, this time not a ‘satire’ by Azzoaprdi but one about the sad state of affairs created by the politicians and powerbrokers which should have been the subject of his play. And that is no laughing matter.