9 parts of desire: Extraordinary lives, beautiful cultures

A portrait of the extraordinary lives of a cross-section of nine ordinary Iraqi women, 9 Parts of Desire is currently showing at St James Cavalier. I met up with director Toni Attard and actress Shirley Blake to learn more about the production.

When Toni Attard first came across Heather Raffo’s script for 9 Parts of Desire some years ago, he immediately thought that this would be a particularly apt play to show in Malta. Fast-forward to the months after the Arab spring and its relevance becomes even more poignant. Now Troupe 18:45 are putting up the production at St James Cavalier this very weekend, turning Toni’s vision into reality together with the help of three actresses who will taking up three roles each.
“This is the sort of production that doesn’t entertain and stop there. It gives rise to questions. We have the lives of nine different women and their story is guaranteed to destroy any misconceptions we still harbour about the Arab culture in general and lives of Arab women specifically,” Toni tells me.
The play, which contains scenes in both the English and the Maltese language, does not portray these women, these “stars” of the script as victims and this is one aspect that Toni is heavily focusing on in his direction.
“This is a story of strong women, it deals with survivors. The idea is certainly not to make us pity the protagonists, but more to give us a glimpse into a lifestyle that maybe we don’t as yet understand fully, despite the fact that these are our neighbours in reality.”
Each woman presents a story that is uniquely human, Toni explains, and puts paid to the idea that Arab women are typically locked up at home and have no life of their own. On the contrary, through these nine personalities we get to meet a powerful collective of feminine strength, seduction and even humour.
“Given our cultural, linguistic and geographic proximity to the Arab world, I felt it important to add Maltese to the production. Those parts of the script that have been translated are those where it would not be natural for English to be used. Those characters who would speak Arabic speak in Maltese during the production. Thus we have the Mulayyah, who is the equivalent of the Maltese bikkejja… she is very strong and powerful, her language would be Arabic. But then there’s the character of the girl who thinks that anything American is her hero – her choice would be English. We’ve kept to what these characters would really want to use,” Toni explains.
The play features nine women, each portraying a different type of desire. Shirley Blake, who is portraying the Artist, the Doctor and Layall, tells me that in a way it’s a woman talking about the different roles in her life. Throughout her preparation for the play, Shirley spent quite a bit of time chatting to an Arab woman who now lives in Malta; this gave her a different and deeper perspective on the culture.
“These women are strong. After the war, many found themselves responsible for a whole family.

Shirley, as well as the other two actresses who take on the roles of the remaining six women, take on the role of narrators throughout the production. The focus is not on dramatisation; all three step away from the character to offer the audience a realistic situation portrayed through narration.
“This method can be more effective,” both Toni and Shirley agree.
“It is a challenge to created distance between us as actors and the characters. Each one of us has three monologues and that is highly demanding. The tempo of the pieces changes constantly too. We are portraying the words of an Arab woman, acted by a Maltese woman, directed by a Maltese man. It has to be genuine and believable and this is why it’s better to take a step back from the characters,” Shirley continues.
Toni adds with a smile that none of them have ever read so much Al Jazeera in their whole lives. The research that went into the production and into each role was continuous and the whole cast hopes that this research will open the audience’s eyes that there are a lot of misconceptions that need to be corrected.
“Theatre, much like visual arts, can be used as a tool to sensitize people to particular situations. It’s about removing cultural barriers. Life in the Arab world is not just about the war, which is what we seem to think. There is a life outside the war. They have culture, art, movies, families… I find it rather sad that in Malta we don’t as yet really carry any Arabic culture on our events calendar except for maybe during the Mediterranean Literature Festival. There is definitely more room for collaboration,” he says.
Shirley tells me that she emphatises most with the character of Layall, who is one of the three major characters.
“She is a pure example of survival of the fittest. She doesn’t want to leave her home even though she has been given enough opportunities to leave Iraq. But she has powerful connections that she can use there. However, she also has to compromise a lot. Her character is based on that of a real Iraqi artist who was eventually killed during the war. The author herself says that she was inspired to create this character shortly after seeing a painting called Savagery by the same artist.”
Those who go to watch 9 Parts of Desire expecting the usual stereotypes and platitudes about the Arab world will definitely be surprised. As Toni himself concludes:
“It’s not about acting and trying to be emotional. It’s all about giving us a better understanding of the lives of these women through their culture.”
9 Parts of Desire is showing today and tomorrow (March 17 and 18) at St James Cavalier in Valletta. To book your tickets visit www.sjcav.org.

This post was published on The TV Guide (The Times of Malta).