“How does it feel to be partly responsible for ending Malta’s censorship laws?”
The young man asking me the question—handsome, with wispy facial hair, blondish-brown dreadlocks wrapped up in a ponytail, a big smile—is a journalist for one of the two big newspapers on this Mediterranean island. I’m an American directing British playwright Martin Crimp’s 1997 play Attempts on Her Life for Unifaun Theatre Productions, an upstart company that’s thrown a monkey wrench into the island’s politics and cultural life, with me as an occasional accomplice.
I’m jet-lagged from my flight, my white dress shirt fresh out of the suitcase and still a bit wrinkled. I find a small patch of whisker on my jaw that I missed shaving. I’m glad the promised photographer hasn’t arrived.
You’ve likely heard of this island only from old movies about falcons or knights, so a brief digression: Malta is in the middle of the Mediterranean, between Tunisia in North Africa and the boot of Sicily. The population is a little more than 423,000—the average number of people my home state of California adds to its population every year. It’s a member of the European Union. The main religion is Catholic.
In 2008, Unifaun’s artistic director, Adrian Buckle, hired me to direct the local premiere of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, a play I’d already done in Los Angeles with my then theatre company, Rude Guerrilla. I was asked to direct it because, at the time, the play’s graphic sex and violence might get a Maltese director arrested. The barrage of press and resulting furor led the government’s censoring board to demand that Buckle show them the script for Unifaun’s next planned production. The content of Anthony Neilson’s Stitching was mild in comparison to Blasted, but the board banned it outright anyway, which led to the case being submitted to the European Union International Criminal Court, and to the eventual overturning of the country’s archaic censorship laws.
Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life doesn’t have any of those controversial elements, but it’s certainly unconventional: It’s a series of 17 scenes about a woman named Anne who is never seen, only talked about, and is described differently by everyone who speaks about her. In one scene she is a terrorist, in another a victim of terrorism; in one scene she’s a suicidal artist, in another she’s an automobile. None of the dialogue is assigned to particular characters, a linear storyline is absent, and there are no stage directions. Buckle had a choice between Attempts and Jane Martin’s pro-choice play Keely and Du. On an island where abortion is still illegal, the latter would have been a controversial hot ticket—his version of a safe bet. But after seeing a production of DV8 Physical Theatre’s verbatim dance/theatre project John, Buckle had an epiphany and decided he wanted to stage a movement piece, steering his company—and the island’s often conservative theatre community—in a more avant-garde direction.
We cast seven women and three men for the play a few months before I arrive. I break up the lines into groups of 10, have the cast put their names in a hat, then randomly draw and assign lines over a group Skype call. I send them a breakdown of potential staging ideas for the scenes and let them go to work memorizing and improvising movement with choreographer Sandra Mifsud.
Over the next weeks, Sandra sends me video of the cast improvising movement. They become a forest ravaged by war, lifting and supporting each other into the air, then freezing into tableaux of violence. The work she does with scarves—covering faces, leashing necks, and binding wrists—is alternately suffocating and beautiful.
Things to get used to once I arrive:
- Mediterranean time. There’s a casual relationship with punctuality in this part of the world. Almost everyone drifts into rehearsal late. Work never starts on time, with people sharing a cigarette, drinking coffee, or playing catch-up first.
- Ungodly traffic. The car population in this country is more than half that of the human population. It takes roughly 70 minutes to travel from one side of this 16-mile island to the other on a good day, but it can easily take half that time just to drive 7 miles in rush hour.
- Other jobs. Actors here routinely beg off rehearsal because they’re doing two plays at once, need to be on set for a Michael Fassbender or Christian Bale film, or have a role in one of the country’s fairly awful TV shows. Contrary to what you might experience in Los Angeles, for example, where actors routinely get a film and then completely disappear from a show, while nearly everyone in the Attempts cast is working on several projects at the same time, no one drops out.
- Rehearsal space shuffle. Studio space in Malta, as in America, is at a premium, with space rented (and rarely inexpensively). Buckle is well connected, but even with an established production company, he has to move us around from space to space. It’s not unusual for a late actor to call us at the dance studio and say they’re at the local drama club where we rehearsed the night before.
5. Pink sands. If you leave your whites out on the clothesline on a windy day, they can turn pink from the sands of Libya, 684 miles away.
We’re performing the play at St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity. Located in Valletta, Malta’s capital, the 16th-century military fortress was built to stave off attacks by land. Hundreds of years later, it beat its sword into a plowshare, and the massive limestone building now hosts a music hall, a film screening room, a theatre, and several art galleries.
Athletes and artists in Malta have to leave the island to make a living. It can’t support them, and a lot more people watch soccer there than go to theatre. While the arts receive some funding in Malta, Unifaun rarely gets any because of their focus on more provocative, in-your-face work. Buckle pays everyone involved a decent wage, but modestly considers himself “semi-professional,” because no one who works with him will make a living. I tell him that if every artist in the U.S. who didn’t make a living wage in theatre were considered an amateur, there’d be more amateurs than professionals.
For myself, I’m able to pay all of my bills, including my rent and various utilities at home while I’m away—something I’d been able to do only once prior, because of a commission, despite 20 years in the business, damn good reviews, and 70-plus productions.
I meet the minister for justice, culture, and local government, Owen Bonnici, at an art exhibition. He smiles, leans in, and says to me that while he’s not that crazy about the high-rises going up on the island, if they’re going to happen, at least he’ll make sure the arts get some money in the bargain. I can’t recall any recent politician in America who even talks about art, let alone supports it.
Wholly unknown to me, most of the young actors have been trained in devising work—something unheard of in the U.S.—so rehearsals go off without a hitch. There is a constant infusion of ideas, and all I have to do is edit what I’m seeing.
In rehearsing Scene 16 of the play, we’re combining the rather complex movement—grids, falls, lifts, and tableaux—with all of the dialogue in the scene for the first time. The dialogue, per the author’s instruction, is translated into different languages, and when the multilingual cast starts speaking, it’s a whirlwind of Maltese (an Arabic/Italian mashup), Danish, English, Italian, French, and Macedonian, spoken in a Tower-of-Babel cacophony. I’d never be able to direct the scene this way in the English-dominant United States.
Our first arguments arise when we try rehearsing two scenes in black, full-body burqas. Buckle had initially started selling the show with a photograph of a woman in Islamic dress, playing into the script’s suggestion that Anne is multilayered, a character to be unwrapped and discovered. A feminist play written by a man, Attempts also dissects oppression, and I was enchanted by the idea of having all of the actors—regardless of gender—wear the costumes and dance in them.
Just a week earlier, however, conservative factions in the Maltese parliament called for a ban on the outfit altogether, as fears of nonexistent terrorism taking precedence over any actual incident in which this was a factor.
The cast has different concerns: that people might think we are mocking Islam by having men and women in the dress, and that what we’re doing might add fuel to the racist protests being started by several nativist “patriot” groups in the country. On the flip side, others argue that feminism supports women doing what they want, and if some want to wear the burqa, that decision shouldn’t be interfered with.
It takes a while, but I eventually realize that my focus on the image is putting too fine a point on an ambiguous play, limiting its scope and ability to be defined in a variety of different manners. I said at our first rehearsal that while we were pushing boundaries, we would honor the playwright’s work, as well as the opinions of the cast members, since we are working on a consensus basis.
The end result? Before long, 600 euros worth of black material is up for sale on eBay.
Hell week arrives. The theatre is responsible for raising the stage, but discovers partway through its assembly that half of the stage was unceremoniously tossed in a dumpster during a remodel. It’s our first run-through in the theatre. We’re opening in four days—and we have only half a stage.
One of my actors walks in, pale, dazed, her arm in a sling. She says she fell and “ripped something” during a dance rehearsal at school. I choke back panic and start reworking all of the choreography in which she lifts, holds someone, is pulled by that arm, or balances herself with it.
No matter what we do, every time my actresses speak into the onstage video cameras, a subject-tracking box flickers and darts around the screen with her. We consider removing the video cameras from the show.
Another actor ends up in the hospital and comes back to rehearsal looking wan. He tells me he’ll be fine by opening night and says, “Don’t worry.”
And there are problems with the video images on the flat-screen TVs: I asked my video designer to randomly pick words from the play and Google them, download the resulting pictures, and assemble the results into a kind of metanarrative that would play randomly at different moments during the show. Instead of something that works against the story, opening it up, too many of the visuals reiterate what we’re already seeing or hearing. He has to make changes.
By opening night, cameras have been replaced, the video has been reedited, and the stage has been reinforced. Actors are healthy, safe, and secure. The acting couldn’t be better.
The audience is enthusiastic, if a bit dazed by what they see. I hear good things as they exit and congratulate Adrian for the risk-taking. But it’s unclear whether they understand what they just saw.
I’ll be leaving soon, before the second weekend begins. We’re having the cast party at the Pub, infamous as the place where actor Oliver Reed drank himself to death while shooting the film Gladiator. I take a few pictures of the corner where Reed last sat. Looking at the images on my phone, a hazy light hovers over the area, whether I used a flash or not. It’s a light that doesn’t appear in any of the other pictures I took. I can’t explain it and I don’t really try.
Maybe Oliver Reed loves the place and simply doesn’t want to leave. Neither do I.
Dave Barton helmed the U.S. premieres of many of Britain’s “in-yer-face” plays as artistic director of Rude Guerrilla Theater Company, and has directed more of playwright Mark Ravenhill’s work than anyone in the world. He is currently artistic director of Monkey Wrench Collective in Southern California, with a focus on immersive, site-specific work.