Name Your Price
Just a few minutes to go and the theatre is flooded in blue light and smoke. One by one, seats start filling in. The setting is so intimate that it’s impossible not to find yourself locking eyes with other audience members opposite you at one point or another, and even more so, to not share the feeling of excitement (or dread) of what is yet to come.
The play starts. Through a few seconds of audio recording, we get to know quite a bit of backstory regarding Raymond’s (that’s our hero) childhood, and what may have ignited early flames to his eventually becoming a celebrated boxer.
John Montanaro is Raymond Beck, a boxer well past his golden years who earns his day to day crust grinding away in a sweaty Zejtun bar. From the moment he first appears, one can’t help being reminded of Christian Bale’s turn as Dicky Eklund in The Fighter (2010), another poignant story about a boxer and his brother’s respective plights. Montanaro successfully loses himself behind Raymond’s raw nerves and working class heart which can easily be mistaken for brute ignorance. He is believable from the very first words he utters, laden with heavy Zejtun accent.
I was pleasantly surprised by Żep Camilleri’s performance as il-Gustuz, Raymond’s employer-cum-boxing-coach. He is genuinely convincing from the first words he utters, persuading Raymond to step back into the ring after a long absence. Personally, Camilleri’s performance was extremely satisfying for the simple reason that until the moment he first walked onto the stage, I was still unfamiliar with the actor, a fact rendering his performance all the more authentic.
Davide Tucci and Kim Dalli are also quite believable as the young, ridiculously good looking boxer with an attitude and his picture-perfect girlfriend who he treats as an afterthought. Boxing always comes first! Neither of whom need introductions, they both radiated confidence and a concoction of anger, sex, frustration and disappointment in no particular order. And he’s just showing off with those fuckin pushups, I thought while sneaking a sad glance at my ever growing gut.
Two other supporting actors (if such a word can be applied in this case), Peter Galea as the charismatic and sneaky ‘sinktu’ and Lilian Pace as Raymond’s ailing grandmother also give fine performances. Galea is his usual wiry, upbeat and slightly dangerous. Pace gave a role reminiscent of the one she gave in Triq Waħda back in the early 90s. The mature, motherly figure who won’t be around taking care of everyone for ever. Such skilful acting.
Is fast paced, witty and pulls no punches (pun intended). All the characters are fast with their tongue, (even the lovable, permanently inebriated Il-Lover (Hector Bruno) and the somewhat gruff but totally endearing il-Grillu (Jesmond Tedesco Triccas). These two masters of their art clearly enjoyed every second on stage, playing the drunk drinking buddies with such heart it would put Mickey Rooney and Red Buttons to shame.
Their respective characters are very much like the typical village bum idling their days away with a Verdun secured under their armpits taking the piss out of everything and everyone and who today still reference Bin Laden u l-Amerikani in their everyday colloquial. I couldn’t help likening them with the kind of men Mastru Gerfex would hang out with, or re-incarnations of Guzeppi and Karmenu from the Enzo Guzman classic Fil-Pjazza tar-Rahal.
The language is Maltese, colourful swearing and all. What was amusing is that even the respective characters’ styles and techniques of swearing differ according to their situation and background. Bruno and Triccas’ swearing, for example, is mild and friendly. Toni Busuttil’s iċ-Ċalie’s (a hardened criminal with a softened heart) lingo is crass and full of anger, if the most imaginative.
Fact is, playwright Andre’ Mangion is quickly becoming a heavyweight in his own right.
Is sublime. This was the first time in a long while where I’ve attended something which was presented so innovatively in so confined a space. Each scene works. Not one person laughed when they weren’t supposed to. A whole lot of us laughed out loud at the uncomfortable awkwardness brought on by the vulgarities we are faced with day in, day out presented in such a blunt manner.
Every scene begins with flash-forwards to the fights we see Raymond working towards having. These short scenes scattered throughout the narrative were brilliantly executed.
Another interesting factor is the soundtrack. Each scene during the first half of the play is scattered with live performances by a DJ and rapper. The music is raw and moody… pity it was incomprehensible at times. As the lyrics served to further narrate the story, one thing I was genuinely frustrated at was that, more often than not, I couldn’t understand one syllable of the lyrics.
The duo make a final appearance with a final performance late in the second half of the show, and the audio was much clearer then. So hopefully, this was a technical issue that was resolved once and for all and won’t be present in subsequent shows.
The one, very impressive thing that happens a number of times (although I never could get enough of it), was the masterfully executing time warping. You read that right. Time warping… as in the Matrix. Live on stage. Nuff said – go watch the fuckin play!
While aesthetically, the approach was minimalist, there is very intelligent use of props, light and space. The same few metres squared effectively serve as the boxing ring, the village square, the interior of the village bar and Raymond’s grandma’s house. The lighting is well designed, particularly from where I was sitting. Must have had the best damn seats in the house. But, as is emphasized over and over again in the play, everything has a price, and I almost paid mine.
During one particularly fierce scene where Dyson (Raymond’s juvenile yet vicious opponent in the ring and outside of it empathetically played by the captivating Davide Tucci) gets lost in a fit of rage, he does two things. First of which, he throws a crumpled up sticky note at his estranged girlfriend who is looking down upon him from a balcony above. During yesterday’s viewing (I can’t imagine this was done on purpose), the paper bounced off the edge of the balcony and comically floated onto the head of an unsuspecting audience member. I was still smiling at this and trying to whisper some witty comment in my wife’s ear about safety precautions and what if he had hurled something heavier than a paper at the balcony…when Tucci wanted to emphasise once more how pissed off he was. There was a duffel bag by his foot which he proceeded to kick. And he’s a strapping lad, Davide is. He kicked it… in the direction of my silly smirking face. No time to think, least not about anything but ducking and about what I could possibly have done to offend him in any way. The duffel bag was not more than a metre from my nose, when Ray Abdilla (in the small but superbly interpreted role of a police inspector), stopped it with his foot. Someone saved, someone saved, someone saved my life tonight!
All in all, the experience was much more like watching a 4D movie than a play in the conventional sense. There was not one second of dead sound. Actors were on and off the stage in mere seconds. Which is no easy feat, considering they had to enter and exit the stage as they would a real life boxing ring – maneuvering boundary ropes and taking care not to fall onto audience members in pitch darkness. Each scene melded seamlessly into the next and sometimes two scenes played out at the same time.
I cannot emphasise enough, extremely intelligent use of space.
A little bit more about the Acting
All the actors were in top shape and a joy to observe. Montanaro and Pace’s accents are authentic. Andre’ Mangion’s stuttering and silence are painful and sincere. It was quite amusing to observe Mangion, the storyteller who always seems to have so much to say, struggling to get a word in edgeways. Frank Zammit was fantastic as the rapid-fire, MC/ boxing referee with the outrageous facial hair.
Philip Mizzi’s performance as Ġorġ Beck, Raymond’s father who has spent a lifetime paying for one grave mistake he made in his youth was gut-wrenching at times and amusing at others, especially when pitted against Toni Busuttil’s iċ-Ċalie, his ever-suffering cellmate. Toni is dynamite in his role, many times delivering verbal blows in such vibrant hues, it actually verges on the poetic.
Compared to the larger roles he usually takes on, Ray Abdilla’s performance as the stern village inspector was quite believable, yet not a show-stopper by any measure. However in retrospect, it is subtlety that makes this play work so well. Each and every actor know their craft very well, delivering their lines with the respect each character deserves.
The final twist, (the very final one, I mean), I definitely didn’t see coming.
Such a play works so well for a number of reasons. It is not because the themes tackled are completely original, because they really aren’t. I can think of at least three or four films which expertly employ the rags-to-riches boxer theme as the driving force of the plot. Raymond Fight Beck works so well because of the heart everyone involved put into it. And because it is so true to our personal characteristic as a nation. Everything has a price, it’s true. Everything and everyone. Power and politics infiltrate and rot even those who seem unbendable to influence. In the ring, bones may shatter and blood may flow, but at the end of the day, it’s money that talks loudest.
Raymond (Fight) Beck mightn’t be a short play. Nevertheless, its’ almost two-hour running time flew by. It was indeed the perfect way to bring to an end our anniversary weekend. Fast and brutal as it is sweet, it was very easy to let go and roll with the punches. To say it is immersive would be an understatement.
Raymond Fight Beck is on at St.James Cavalier until the 18th of March. Not to be missed.