Waiting for Dik is-Siġra f’Nofs ta’ Triq (That Tree in the Middle of the Street, a Teatru Malta/Teatru Anon co-production for the Malta International Arts Festival) to start, I realise there is something magical about the location – the MCAST campus in Paola.
Firstly because the empty school grounds, the wind rustling in the trees, have that sense of anything may happen. And also because it does make a nice change when these alternative spaces are used for theatre, something that Teatru Malta excels in. In the past I have been to performances of Min Hi? at the Rialto, which had not been used in forever. A walk-through performance of Il-Qfil u l-Ħelsien skont Manwel Dimech at the Old Prisons, L-Interrogazzjoni at a private house in Gharghur… There have been plenty others, but those are the ones that spring to mind right now.
At 9pm, the sizable crowd that has gathered in the school yard is ushered towards a small stage, and the fun starts. Because, despite the poignant themes, Dik is-Siġra f’Nofs ta’ Triq is great fun. In the next one and a half hours that are the duration of the show we are treated to singing, dancing, marches, funny skits… but more about that soon.
At its heart, the narrative revolves around a street. Its distinguishing feature is a huge tree that’s been there forever. And now, the tree risks being cut down because… because this is Malta and that’s what we do to trees.
That is the basic narrative, propped up by many other sub-stories, each with a different flavour. We meet the Banda tal-Imqarbin, fulfilling the role of narrators in a very droll way. The Mara li Toħlom Tgħajjat (Charlotte Grech), with her sad refrain. Il-Mara taċ-Ċikkulata (Daniela Carabott Pawley) and Is-Suldat ta’ Mitt Midalja (Pierre Stafrace), bringing excellent comedic interludes. The confectioner (Justin Galea) breathing life into his sugar creations while unknowingly dooming them to death.
Immanuel Mifsud’s poetry is magnificent. There is pathos without it being mawkish. Mifsud flips the mood with one well-placed word. He weaves a touch of magical realism throughout, so subtly that you don’t even notice at first until your brain goes: hold on. In the best tradition of the genre, he grounds the narrative in a very real Malta, with references to political and cultural events, and even the pandemic that “once occurred”.
Dik is-Siġra f’Nofs ta’ Triq – a sense of wonder throughout
But the things that take place throughout Dik is-Siġra f’Nofs ta’ Triq are subtly and wonderfully impossible. The sun and the moon antropomorphise into lovers; a confectioner’s sugar-based creation comes to life; natural timelines are extended indefinitely and a tree comes back to life. The characters, including the names, are pure Gabriel García Márquez archtypes.
The production counts a cast of about 20. It’s a highly talented bunch from dancers to actors, singers, musicians – more than just a play, Dik is-Siġra f’Nofs ta’ Triq is a tour-de-force that crosses genres, combining acting and singing with musical performances, contemporary dance, circus acts and a touch of the Vaudeville.
Every single member of cast and crew shines brightly. It is impossible not to single out Paul Portelli. He has very few lines, but his brooding presence is constant, right up until that spectacular moment when he rises from the tree that’s part of him. I will not spoil the moment by revealing more.
The production is an ensemble of integral elements each of which is vital for its success. The three sets are constructed by Jennings Falzon, who successfully transports us to an entirely different world, to the street with no name. Making sure all the different parts mesh well together is quite the feat.
Costumes, too, play a huge role in the production and Liliana Portelli rises to the occasion with her creations. The thread of magical realism continues even here, with the siblings who never get along very reminiscent of Miyazaki’s No Face.
Ultimately, what makes Dik is-Siġra f’Nofs ta’ Triq so remarkable is that, more than a narrative, it is a set of moving parts. Each of these comes together ingeniously with delicious touches of the unexpected. A family of ghosts emerges coyly in the distance. A huge moon creeps out on the roof – a tribute to George’s Melies? These details imbue the productions with a sense of wonder, and for this, co-directors Chris Gatt and Paul Portelli must be applauded.
Dik is-Siġra f’Nofs ta’ Triq is a clever indictment of the oath Maltese society appears to have embarked on. A path where we may claim to love our island, to lobby for balance between our culture, our environment, our well-being and the march of ‘progress’. But when push comes to shove ,we are all liars who value money and commodities above all else.
Yet, Dik is-Siġra f’Nofs ta’ Triq says all this without becoming preachy. It is entirely possible to enjoy, even without taking into account the ethical stance. And this is where Mifsud as the writer and Gatt and Portelli as executioners deserve full respect.
Considering the challenges of the multiple locations, opening night went almost seamlessly. There were some issues with a couple of the actors’ mics that hopefully will now have been resolved.
Kudos to cast and crew. This is a superb addition to the Malta International Arts Festival (Festivals Malta) programming. It runs till June 25, and tickets area available on line. Go watch it and take a cardigan or scarf as it gets fresh.