Photos: Miguela Xuereb
I’d been hearing great things about Bil-Bieb Mitbuq, a translation of Sartre’s Huis Clos, all weekend, so my expectations were sky-high upon attending the production on its last day on Sunday. My enthusiasm was also backed by knowing that the Maltese script was by Kevin Saliba, who’s built a sterling reputation in the world of literary translations. And that direction was in the hands of Tyrone Grima, whose directorial style I have always enjoyed (check out my Wait Until Dark review in this regard). So yeah, no pressure, you could say.
I’ll cut to the chase and say it outright: I was not disappointed. It’s been a great weekend for Maltese theatre, with Teatru Malta’s Lupu/Nagħġa also running in parallel;. My only wish is that Bil-Bieb Mitbuq could have had a longer run as, clearly, a lot of work and talent has gone into this production. Not to mention the fact that it’s an important piece of theatre that deserves to be made accessible to a wider audience than you catch on one weekend.
Onto the talent, starting with the script itself. Translating Sartre into Maltese is always a risky proposition, especially considering the importance the philosopher places on the dynamics of spoken conversation, imbuing it with a power that could be easily altered or misshapen. But Saliba uses the language beautifully and concisely, and nothing is lost in translation. The text of Bil-Bieb Mitbuq fully respects the importance that its original writer places on the relationship between language and society.
Bil-Bieb Mitbuq – Still Relateable
The original script may have been first performed in 1944, but a contemporary audience will find it easy to engage with the narrative. The themes of existentialism – portraying a hell of our own creation via one small, locked room and the three protagonists trapped therein – remain just as relevant today, perhaps even more so. There are problematic areas, as is to be expected from a text that was written in an age when sexual politics were entirely different. Inez is a predatory lesbian, Estelle is a man-eater, Garzin’s biggest failing is that he’s a coward, rather than the ill-treatment of his wife. The play certainly needs to be approached in the context of its time.
Tyrone Grima’s setting presents us with a physical cage that dominates most of the stage at Spazju Kreattiv. This cage gets more and more claustrophobic by the minute, an entirely believable portrayal of hell that messes with the minds of the three leads as they spiral into a vortex of self-hatred, condemned to play and replay the deeds that brought them to this point.
The main cast – Antonella Axisa as Estelle, Sarah Camilleri as Inez and André Mangion as Garcin – is indefatigable in delivering this difficult text. The success of Bil-Bieb Mitbuq largely hinges on the chemistry between its main actors, and one weak link can easily throw the entire production off-kilter. Here, there was no such weak link. The triangle’s dynamics shift continuously, and the audience’s perception with it. I also enjoyed Sean Briffa’s dead-pan portrayal of the valet introducing each character to hell.
Given the limited space, the production is surprisingly physical – credit to the choreographers and to set design, as it can’t have been easy to make this work so fluidly. The addition of filmography, screened across all four walls, to give us a glimpse of what Inez, Estelle and Garcin were up to back on earth, was another excellent directorial choice.
By the time the iconic line is delivered – hell, then, is other people – the entire audience was visibly in a state of nervous tension that would undoubtedly have pleased Sartre. Bravo all around.