'There's No Way That Jason Micallef Should Be In Charge Of Anything That Has To Do With Culture': Playwright Boycotting Her Own Play
'It's a mad stampede for money. We are being hemmed in by unnatural forces'
Playwright, author and activist Lizzie Eldridge has been part of the ongoing struggle for justice and human rights in the wake of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Now, she has come under fire for boycotting her own play Friefet Bojod because of its connection with the Valletta 2018 project.
Friefet Bojod was conceived in 2017, after Eldridge attended a workshop by Get Your Act Together. While not originally intending to submit it as a proposed play, she said a fellow course attendee had some choice words for her: do you need a beating heart to stay alive?
"I went with that, and I started thinking long about issues around construction in Malta, a problem which intensifies by the day," Lizzie said.
"There's cranes everywhere. Gżira, Sliema and now the appalling Pembroke high-rise. The whole issue of building towers and the amount of corruption in this country seems never-ending," she said.
"So I started to write Friefet Bojod, a play about this guy wanting to build a tower in a particular area. For the contractor it's sort of an incentive to prove himself to his dead father and to prove his manhood. The story centres around this man and a woman who loses her son to an accidental drugs overdose. In order to mark his passing, the grieving mother aims to plant a tree on the spot where her son passed away. The landowner has to make a choice, he either has to be compassionate and think about the future or just fill his pockets with money," she told Lovin Malta.
That was the plan back in 2017. However when the first reading of her play was scheduled, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated outside her Bidnija home.
"The landscape really altered after that. It's a horrible place to be in, so the assassination had an impact on the play, even though it wasn't directly connected to the theme. It does however connect with the theme of corruption in Malta," she said.
"Jason Micallef and Owen Bonnici are a disgrace"
Eldridge wanted to have a minimalistic approach to the play, with a small number of cast and props, and have it all centre around the tower and the tree. "It became much more profound. When you see that trees are being cut down on a daily basis to make space for more buildings, it's like the pace has accelerated since I first began writing," Eldridge said.
The feeling and the message behind the play are still the same — destruction of the environment rooted in corruption, profit and short-term gain.
"Nobody is thinking about tomorrow, nobody is trying to preserve human life. The woman in the play is trying to create a new life. She's concerned with regeneration and creating benefits for tomorrow in the form of nature, but the man wants to get rid of it for money, to prove his power," she said.
"So the message hasn't changed at all, but the context has really shifted. It's much more urgent now. I look at Pembroke and it really exemplifies what's wrong here. The go-ahead was clearly given way before, and this is obvious from past and present media reports. It was already in place and this is symptomatic of the whole disease - a mad and criminal stampede for money which leaves us under threat in political, social and environmental ways," Lizzie told Lovin Malta.
"There is absolutely no way whatsoever that Jason Micallef should be in charge of anything that has to do with culture"
Eldridge sees this building epidemic as a very physical thing, describing living in such an environment as not healthy for anyone involved.
"I really object to this. We are being hemmed in by unnatural forces, whenever I open my curtains all I see is cranes, it's not okay to do this, money will not solve the physical and psychological problems this is going to create," Eldridge told Lovin Malta.
The murder of Caruana Galizia had a massive impact on the playwright. "As a writer I feel like this whole awfulness and the atrocities happening right now have a huge influence on my writing," she said. This culminated in Eldridge's boycotting of Friefet Bojod after it was selected for Valletta 2018. Several artists including Eldridge, over 250 international creatives and 72 MEPs had called for Jason Micallef's resignation as chairman of Valletta 2018 earlier this year in light of his imprudent behaviour in regards to the slain journalist.
"There is absolutely no way whatsoever that Micallef should be in charge of anything that has to do with culture. I look at him and I say what the hell? Whose idea was this? The way in which the City of Culture was hijacked is part and parcel of the way the Labour Party has hijacked every institution in this country. Because of Valletta’s so-called status as European Capital of Culture, the hijacking of culture has been intensely visible and acute," Eldridge explained.
Over 100 local artists, authors and creatives signed a petition calling for Micallef’s resignation back in April
"If the whole Valletta thing wasn't under the spotlight, the hijacking of culture might have gone unnoticed, or less so internationally. Despite all the demands for (Jason) Micallef’s resignation after his brutal St.Patrick's Day comment, this has been ignored, like everything else is ignored by this government. The build-up and the opening 'celebrations' for the City of Culture felt like watching a party in a city covered in blood," Eldridge said.
"Micallef is the chairman, he represents the city of culture. If it was any other country he would've been forced to resign, like Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi should have years ago. It's not normal for people to say stuff like this publicly and be defended," she said.
"Art is art. We are not court jesters"
"Freedom of expression has its parameters, especially if you are in a position of authority. You cannot just let it all hang out. Jason Micallef is a disgrace, Owen Bonnici was also disgraceful after what he did on Dutch TV, how can someone like him be the Minister of Justice and Culture?" Eldridge asked, noting a grilling by Dutch journalists after rising tension between Malta and the Leuuwarden Foundation (the Dutch counterpart to Valletta 2018). The Foundation had called for a boycott on events in Malta in light of Micallef's insensitive comments, which Bonnici defended by referring to it as freedom of expression.
"If the artists don't react, who will? Most of them keep quiet because they need to keep their contracts, but that still does not make it ok. We are not court jesters, we are artists," she added.
"It's a disease. It's supported by so many people. It suits them and their pockets, and it gets them what they want"
"When Francisco Goya was a painter for the King of Spain, he managed to put his criticism for the King in his paintings. This was a life and death situation, but what is the Maltese artists' excuse?" Eldridge asked, harking back to the decision she made to boycott her own work.
"Every day it pretty much gets worse. I stopped saying that things cannot get any worse because they do, every single day more stuff comes out, more corruption. There is no end to the corruption here unless it's stopped. Everything that has been happening and coming out will just continue unless someone stops it," she said.
"It's a disease but it's supported by so many people. It suits them and their pockets, and it gets them what they want from their politicians. This is the endemic corruption in Malta. This is not a democracy. The change will not come from within, a different government will not make any difference when the corruption is so deep-rooted," she explained.
"The change cannot come from the government, nor from the parliament. Nearly every aspect of Maltese society has been tainted in some way and because of this, the only way change could foreseeably happen right now is if people's pockets are affected. What a sad indictment of the situation that is." Eldridge said.