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A Very Brief (But At The Same Time Quite Detailed) History Of Theatre In Malta

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We seem to be experiencing some sort of theatrical renaissance here in Malta; with a plethora of new works and companies popping up every week, as well as a return to some of our literary roots. But how did we get here?

The history of the Maltese islands is quite a complex one, with influences from various cultures and civilisations shaping it. We have an entire section, including a very detailed thirteen-part series, dedicated to explaining this complex history. So if that interests you, click here.

But for the purposes of this article I’m going to assume that you either

1. Already know a basic timeline of our history, or

2. Care more about the theatre than the context

Not that the context isn’t important, because it’s an essential part of understanding how we got where we are. But just for today, we’ll let that one slide a bit.

Now, to quote one of western theatre’s greatest gifts;

Do Re Mi

By taking a trip all the way back to the year 3600 B.C.E, when our historic megalithic temples were built.

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Because this is probably when the first theatrical practices in Malta took place. Obviously not in the way we think of theatre nowadays. But like most ancient civilisations, theatre probably emerged from religious rituals and ceremonies. The performative elements of sacrificial offerings and the organised structure of religious ceremonies most likely gave way to more theatrical practices in the eventual future.

But unfortunately, there is little information available about theatre practices between the Roman and Arab eras, but we do know that it began to pick up after the Middle Ages. This is the time when Malta was under the rule of The Knights of St. John in the year 1530. The arrival of Italian and French cultures brought around the influence of Commedia dell’Arte, which popularised the tradition of village theatre and in turn religious drama.

At this time, plays and amateur theatrical productions were staged in the halls and piano nobiles of the Knights’ auberges. Carnival activity had also become increasingly popular at this time. And let’s just say that some of the younger knights behaved problematically with some of the local females at these festivities…

This is what prompted Grand Master António Manoel de Vilhena to commission and fund the construction of Malta’s first ever public theatre

Aptly named Teatro Pubblico at the time, but this is what would soon come to be known as the Manoel Theatre. The commission was released in the year 1731, and the first performance to take place on the Teatro Pubblico stage was Scipone Maffei’s tragedy ‘Merope’, on the 19th of October 1732.

Gm Antonio Manoel

Portrait of Don Frei Antonio Manoel de Vilhena (1663-1736)

The tragedy ‘Merope’, was based on Greek mythology and followed Merope, the Queen of Mexico, and all the awful men in her life. Sounds like my kind of play.

GM António Manoel wanted this theatre to be built to try and keep the younger Knights out of trouble by providing them with something to do. But he also wanted to provide the people of Malta with ‘honest entertainment’. In fact, the inscription “ad honest populist ablectationem” (the honest people delight) can still be read on top of the theatre.

In 1792, the French took over the Maltese islands, and opera composer Nicolas Isouard took over the theatre

His first opera, ‘Casaciello‘, was debuted at the Teatro Publico. Then, in 1813 the British took over and was it was renamed as the “Teatro Reale” (bc fancy), going through a series of enlargements and re-modellings throughout the 19th century. Most notably in 1812 Sir George Whitmore added today’s gallery and proscenium arch, raised the ceiling by one storey, and added eight more boxes.

In 1861, the theatre (unofficially for now) fell into the hands of the government, and six years later fell into a sort of ‘disuse’. It had been overshadowed by the construction of the Royal Opera House on Strada Reale. The theatre began to serve as a doss house for homeless who paid a fee of a few pennies per night to ‘rent’ a box to sleep in.

In an attempt to crawl out of Royal Opera House’s shadow, which was commonly referred to as Teatru Rjal, the Teatro Reale was renamed once more; taking up the name The Manoel Theatre in 1873. Coincidentally, this was the year that the opera house caught on fire. Shady.

Its Lit Fam

What The Royal Opera House looked like back in the day

Between this time, popular performances included classic tragedies, comedies, and operas (both old and new). However, this time also saw the appearance of theatre in Maltese, with plays by Mikelang Borg often being performed at the opera house. Borg had also joined a troupe of Maltese actors called L-Indipendenza in the year 1888, and they also worked at the Manoel. This troupe was highly important not only because they performed in Maltese at the two most important theatres in Malta, but because they were the first local troupe to pay their actors and tour internationally.

But the Royal Opera House was rebuilt in 1877, reopening with a performance of the classic Verdi opera ‘Aida’. So the Manoel kind of dwindled back into the shadows for a while, and only stepped its game up again in the 20th Century, but we’ll get to that later.

In the meantime, here’s a quick recap of theatre in Malta between the 1700s and 1800s:

  • Performances used to take place in private halls
  • The first public theatre was built in 1732
  • The Royal Opera House was built in 1866
  • The two theatres showed a mix of tragedy, comedy, and opera performances
  • Original theatre in Maltese started making an appearance
  • They constantly battled for the attention of the public
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The 1900s is when theatre in Malta really started to get interesting. This was very much a time of self-identification for the Maltese. We had been under the rule of the British since the year 1800 (or 1813 if you want to be precise), and in the year 1964 we gained independence.

But leading up to that official Independence Day, there was already some unrest. People had been discussing independence from the Brits since roughly 1946, with Malta being granted self-rule in 1947. Incidentally, that’s also the year that women’s suffrage was granted in Malta, resulting in the election of Agatha Barbara. After that, several referendums and discussions were held in an attempt to negotiate independence, until it was finally decided in in ’64.

But what is more interesting to world of local theatre is the fact that in the year 1934, Maltese and English replaced Italian as the official languages of Malta. The first radio play in Maltese to be broadcast on Reddifusion was L-Għenieqa ta’ Wiżu, written by novelist Kelinu Vella Haber and inspired by a story of Sir Temi Zammit in 1943.

But let’s rewind a bit, to the year 1910, when the MADC was set up

If you’ve made it this far down in the article, you probably know what the Malta Amateur Dramatic Club (MADC) is. Set up during the British rule by Kay and Ella Warren, the MADC is Malta’s longest-standing theatre company. Their first recorded performance was a pantomime called ‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp’, which is apt because they’re definitely most known for their pantos.

This wasn’t the first panto to be held in Malta but, according to records, it is the first one to include references to Maltese culture and people. Previous pantos had been kept ‘strictly British’, but MADC’s panto including two police officers named Ħam-Run and Slie-Ma.

Panto 2

Not an entirely accurate representation of an MADC pantomime

At the time the MADC was only accepting British members, and because of this all their performances were in English. They did have many Maltese audience members too, but you’d have had to look elsewhere if you wanted theatre in Maltese. Of course, there were many troupes performing in Maltese, such as L-Indipendenza (that I mentioned earlier), Maleth, and the Malta Drama League. However, none of these lasted past the 20th Century.

Much of the MADC’s current theatrical programme has remained the same as when it was set up

With a tendency to opt for classical British texts, as well as their annual Christmas Pantomime and a performance of Shakespeare at the San Anton Gardens every summer.

The very first Shakespeare at the San Anton Gardens was a performance of ‘As You Like It’ directed by a woman called Judy Slessor. They didn’t perform Shakespeare for another 15 years, mostly because the club was inactive for a few years after the war, but in 1951 Shakespeare in the garden returned with a production of ‘the Tempest’, and they have kept their annual appointment since. Coincidentally, last year’s Shakespeare production was ‘As You Like It’ (directed by Philip Leone Ganado), and this year’s is ‘The Tempest’ (directed by Stephen Oliver).

The year 1951 was also the year that the MADC began accepting Maltese actors and members. But they wouldn’t have the first performance in Maltese until the year 1972, when Lino Farrugia directed Ir-Raħeb by Erin Serracino Inglott.

But the 20th Century also saw the rise of one of Malta’s most important playwrights; Francis Ebejer

He’s arguably Malta’s leading dramatist of the 20th Century, and he was a pretty prolific writer. He wrote seven novels in English, and one in Maltese that probably everyone on the island has heard of (Il-Ħarsa tar-Rużan). But he also wrote over 50 plays, most of them in Maltese, and all of them original. Three of his most popular plays include;

  1. Vaganzi tas-Sajf
  2. Boulevard
  3. Menz

It is said that Vaganzi tas-Sajf paved the way for a new direction of Maltese theatre; one that was highly symbolic, sightly absurd, and very intellectual.

Francis

Francis Ebejer looking dapper

In his groundbreaking plays he introduced a deep introspection of Maltese society, using an elegant style that proved him to be a master of the language. He was avant-garde not only in his writing, but also in his stage direction. He drew inspiration heavily from absurdists such as Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, and while his direction was often seen as ‘too much’ for audiences at the time (this was between the 50s and 60s), his work is now revered as iconic.

The reason his plays are still considered relevant today is because they don’t belong to a single context.

But rather, they focus on the more universal aspects of humanity in relation to Malta. And because of this, the way he discussed Maltese society and the individuals that make it up remains just as valid today as it was fifty years ago.

The Manoel Theatre was bought back by the Maltese Government in 1957, and many of Ebejer’s works were performed there. At this time, the Royal Opera House was not being used at all; after being heavily bombed during the Second World War, it was the centre o much debates amongst governments, with proposals for design dating back as far as 1953. However, the Opera House would only be set for refurbishment in the year 2008, alongside Malta’s parliament, in a major overhaul of that area of Valletta my architect Renzo Piano, finalised and reopened in the year 2013.

In the late 1970s, the Manoel Theatre set up a vocational training school for local theatre practitioners

Modelled after popular drama schools in the UK such as RADA and LAMDA, the theatre set up an agreement with the British Council and the Ministry of Education, and together they establish the Manoel Theatre Academy of Dramatic Art (MTADA).

Set up in 1977, the MTADA saw the introduction of technical training for local actors presented by professionals from the industry in the UK. The academy offered training in dramatic art to Junior (from 14-17 years) and Senior (18 upwards) classes, across a programme of study that lasted five terms. It initially also ran a separate stage-management course, but this was eventually cut.

Training at the MTADA, which was heavily text-based, revolved around classes in movement, voice, improvisation, interpretation, and rehearsal for productions that were put up roughly every other month. Notable alumni for the MTADA, which was disbanded in the late 80s, include Josette Ciappara, Mikhail Basmadjian, Victor Debono, Coryse Borg and Anthony Bezzina.

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Theatre and the performing arts in Malta in the 21st century is an exciting scene to be a part of. Opportunities for performance and training are abundant, with a jam-packed programme at every performance venue on the island, performing arts courses at the University of Malta, and youth training programmes like TMYT (Teatru Manoel Youth Theatre) and Studio18 available to all.

In 2017, we saw the establishment of Malta’s first official National Theatre company, Teatru Malta

It describes itself as a national theatre ‘without walls’, which means it is not tied down to a place, or a style, or a team. “No walls means more freedom to create work you want to see”, and anywhere can be their stage.

We’re also seeing a lot of new original work coming from known theatre practitioners, such as Simone Spiteri, Denise Mulholland, and Adrian Buckle, as well as some new names like Anton Saliba and Philippa and Bettina Cassar.

With regards to style, there seems to be a fair balance being struck between absurd and stylistic theatre, and naturalistic theatre that is meant to reflect the world around us. We’re also seeing a return to the use of the Maltese language in theatre, including in the translation of some classic texts from playwrights such as Pinter and Ionesco.

There is also a group of younger performers and creatives on the rise, creating their own work and getting international training, which seems to be making way for a new wave of local theatre, that I can only imagine is going to be extremely exciting, challenging, and creative.

Cover image: Royal Opera House after bombing, Promotional material for Dú Theatre’s Republikka Immakulata

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