When director Ivan De Battista and his troupe travelled to France this summer to put up a play in Maltese, his multi-cultural audience eagerly welcomed the idea of a foreign-language production. He talks about his experience performing and directing for nine nationalities at Les Eurotopiques festival.
The idea of a play in Maltese being performed in France for a multinational audience might sound rather far-fetched. Impossible even, some might think.
These were not the thoughts that crossed director and actor Ivan De Battista’s mind when he learnt that Malta was being invited to take part in Les Eurotopiques Festival 2012 in Tourcoing.
The festival, which is held every alternate year, offers European countries exposure for original language productions in their native language and was held earlier this month. The perfect opportunity, De Battista thought, to showcase Maltese language and theatre.
“This was the first time Malta was taking part. I was immediately intrigued because it was a marriage of Maltese literature and theatre, something I had always wanted to experience and which doesn’t happen often, even in Malta.”
Sixty theatre projects applied to take part in the festival, but only 10 projects from nine countries made the final cut, among them De Battista’s. All entries had to be connected to this edition’s chosen theme, Lies, and the director says the backbone for the story came to him almost immediately and he approached Kristabell Catania to start working on the script.
“The end result was a 71-minute duologue called Mentior Cum Amori – We Lie Because We Love. My wife Simone was also part of the team and we shared the two main roles. Kristabell took on some minor parts, while I directed the production.
“Regulations limited us to four people per play: the fourth member of our team, Renato Vella, was in charge of the technical angle, co-ordinating lighting and music requirements.”
Despite the relatively small size of the production, De Battista tells me that he chose to make full use of lighting potential, using it in order to make the audience feel as though they were part of the story.
“The subject matter was intense and the lighting effects kept the audience on their toes. I wanted them to feel just a little bit uncomfortable, in keeping with the vibe of the plot. Even the music was chosen for this purpose.”
The plot centred around Jean and Sophie, a couple who appear to have overcome a nine-year battle with infertility. However, lies, tension and drama follow as the mother fights for her son.
The play combines these universal and timeless themes with a strong element of Maltese culture and history. To overcome the language barrier problem, De Battista used a system of superscripts running across the stage.
“This presented one of the biggest challenges because it meant there was no room for ad-libbing at all. Our body language – and, as a result, our lines – had to wholly correspond to the superscript being shown, otherwise it would have thrown the plot out of sync and confused the audience,” De Battista explains.
The director hopes to repeat the experience in the next edition of Les Eurotopique, which will carry the theme of Passion. He says the organisers have already urged Imagin-Arts Drama Group, the name under which the troupe operates, to try their luck once again. The festival also opened many doors to other potential theatre collaborations across Europe.
“We networked like crazy while in Tourcoing because I really believe in trying to take Maltese-language productions to as many countries as possible. My only disappointment is that we don’t seem to be following suit in Malta, preferring to run plays in English.”
He finds it even more worrying that when a Maltese production is staged, more often than not it’s from the repertoire of already existing scripts or even a translation of foreign works.
“A language needs new and constantly evolving literature to survive. We can’t just keep turning to scripts that are already there. Of course, it is equally important to stage plays in English, but this doesn’t mean it should be to the detriment of our language.”
Before concluding the interview, I ask him whether he intends to put up Mentior Cum Amori in Malta – given how strongly he believes in Maltese-language productions, it would be a shame if the Maltese audience were not given an opportunity to experience the play.
It turns out De Battista is already in talks for a possible staging later this year.
“It’s a matter of finalising the venue and deciding whether we will be running the original script, which ran to 90 minutes, or the abridged version that we showed in France. We’re looking forward to see how it will be received in Malta.”
An edited version of this interview appeared on The Sunday Times.