I’ve always believed that one of the primary roles of the theatre is to provoke discourse and hopefully, change. Good theatre, that is. When faced with situations we believe we have no control over, it is undoubtedly easier for us to resort to primal emotions such as anger or panic than to reflect on them critically and if possibly, objectively. Thankfully, texts such as Taralalla exist, providing us with the perfect opportunity to reflect on ourselves as individuals and also, as a society. Any dream of change, if ever possible, can only happen as a result of such an exercise.
I went in to see Taralalla without having an inkling as to what the play is about or how it would affect me. I might have gone in a wiser man had I deigned to study the poster a bit better.
What’s it all about?
Taralalla is about 2021 Malta, in all its construction boom-splendour and the affect all this has on the everyday Challies and Marios.
Lara Calleja is an exceptional observer and writer and her Taralalla script could very well be one of the most important and era-defining scripts. While I haven’t yet gotten around to read her award winning Kissirtu Kullimkien, I felt there was an intended connection of sorts between the two. This belief was no doubt further fuelled by the blatant, perhaps cheeky reference to the book cover (which I won’t go on and spoil here. I’m sure you’ll get it once it happens).
Perhaps the most powerful line was uttered by Karmni (the wonderful Lilian Pace Vassallo) when she states, ‘Jien ma nifhimx, ara. Ma nifhimx.’ We use this defensive line so much in our everyday discourse, many times as a preamble to feeble attempts at critique, that its become an unacknowledged cliché in itself. When confronted with the horrors of what is clearly the result of selfishness, so many prefer to bury their heads in the sand, declare their ignorance and leave it up to the powers that be (or an NGO or two) to fight their battles for them.
I see this particular line as representative of two strata of Maltese society. The first are those who, like Karmni, toil with their backs bent and their heads low, content with the little they have. They are the ignorant (i.e. ‘uninformed’) section of people who were always taught not to discuss or talk about politics as a subject, let alone be critical of it. Secondly, it also brings to mind the war cries of the loud majority of the lemon-wielding populace who, when faced with whatever embarrassingly uncomfortable situations which shame their preferred political party, put it down to be the result of politically-related jealousy. These people are not so quick to declare ‘ma nifhimx.’ What they do scream – with a smile even, is ‘erbgħin elf lumi!’ which, in my book, also translates to, ‘ma nifhimx.’
Which is exactly what corrupt politicians and corrupt businessmen want; they are experts at playing a general consensus of ignorance to their advantage. It pays to keep the voter uninformed, and this particular strain of ignorance is a recurring theme in Taralalla. Most of the protagonists are well-meaning, law-abiding, and most probably, let’s face it, church-going people who also unwittingly ooze racist believes and prejudices.
Taralalla’s unforgiving script perfectly exemplifies Lara Calleja’s powerhouse writing. Each of the five principal characters presented here are fully fleshed out. I was especially taken in by Busuttil and Spiteri’s characters. They are the typical Maltese buddies, relentlessly teasing and arguing with each other about petty issues, blaming each other’s voting choices for the state Malta finds itself in, but never really realising or perhaps willing to face the fact that they themselves are vital cogs in the same machine they so despise. It will never occur to them that in a way, they also are abetting and encouraging such a criminally unjust system.
I especially enjoyed a particular moment where they are trying to recall the name of a particularly well known (real-life) person, to no avail. They end up referring to him in many ways, ranging from his stints acting on a sitcom to his appearances on Xarabank, to the flashy car he drives. We know who they’re talking about, they know who they’re talking about, but his actual name and profession keeps eluding them. Perhaps the message here is that that’s all one of the most powerful men is perceived as in the eyes of most locals, just another performer acting in a role. ‘Dak li rreċta f’Becky.’ This is hilarious on the surface (it in fact garnered a number of laughs) but on further thought highlights a tragic truth regarding one of the most prevalent problems in our society; amateurism, self-glorification and rent-seeking actually translate success.
Set Design and Direction
Director Lee-N Abela pulls no punches when visualising Calleja’s story. It is a story saturated in anger and pain. Such raw emotions are brilliantly conveyed in the way space and sound is utilised. To start off with, the theatre at Spazju Kreattiv is as intimate as they come, almost adopting a chapel-like aesthetic. The already constricted space becomes further limited due to the scaffolding piping structure standing over the entire area like a giant, mechanical spider biding its time, waiting to pounce.
The design is intrusive and brash. If set designer Romualdo Moretti’s intention was for the stage to feel ‘raped’ by this structure, well, he succeeded. Taralalla’s Malta is nothing more than a construction site. Everyone and everything; from Maltese mothers, to immigrants to even flora pay the dearest of prices in order for the select few to prosper in the L-Aqwa Żmien development boom. Throughout the play, dry ice wisps around the space above and amongst the actors, perfectly emulating dust and pollution emanating from ongoing construction. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the humble fog machine used in such an intelligent manner before. Oh, and then there is the sound design. Constant clanging, drilling, and chasing assault our hearing throughout. I guess most of us are used to it by now.
Characters & Acting
Taralalla’s characters are everyday people; village people…savvy enough to realise what is wrong with the country’s soul and yet, too blinkered to admit that they are also, in a way, perpetrators of the crimes that disgust them so.
Taralalla stars six actors and each of them delivered such beautifully nuanced work. The actors clearly understood their characters and respected them – no caricatures are to be found here. In the play’s approximate hour runtime, each of the characters, even the ones we’re bound to dislike (and that’s putting it mildly) are given enough time to prove their humanity or at least, to argue their innocence before their judge and jury – us – the audience.
As an audience, we may start off looking to pin the blame on someone or other…but who should take the fall? The old woman who steadfastly refuses to leave her home despite the construction works next door driving her insane? The family man who despises and criticises the rampant corruption going on, while doing zilch to bring change about himself? Or perhaps, his friend who, while being the first to call him out on his faults, has no qualms about having curried favour himself when his party was in power. Then there’s the mother trying to change her life for the better through development of a plot she inherited. Is she to blame for being a part of the problem? Or maybe… just maybe…the blame should fall squarely on the developer’s shoulders – even though, in his words, he is simply doing his job according to his client’s wishes.
While I especially enjoyed the scenes with Busuttil, Spiteri and Vassallo together, due to above all, the wonderful tit-for-tat comic timing between the three, I was also equally impressed with the scene Sarah Camilleri and Clive Piscopo had together.
Sarah never disappoints. She gives a very sincere performance in her portrayal of a mother of two trying her best to make the most of her limited time and resources while also following up on her children’s schooling. I couldn’t help hating Piscopo’s Contractor-cum-Developer Stefan, from the moment he walked onto the stage; what with his evident lack of respect to anything and anyone but money and his ever-ringing mobile phone. If there’s anyone close to an antagonist in Taralalla, it is definitely him. Having said that, the skilful Piscopo manages to make him humane enough, rendering him quite realistic and…well…human. The manner in which he gives such a character (who represents a faction of society which has been, perhaps justifiably, vilified through and through) a sympathetic touch is clearly testament to the man’s immense talent as an actor, as much as it is to Lara’s brilliant writing.
A Contemporary Tragedy
Taralalla is a tragedy, no two ways about it. Initially it does attempt to deceive you into thinking you’re in for a lighter satire. In fact, during the first scene there were more than a few moments where most of us laughed out loud at what felt like the jibes of characters in a traditional village comedy. Most of these giggles were triggered by the to and fro between Charlie and Mario, the characters beautifully played by Christopher Spiteri and Toni Busuttil. The humour however only serves to hook the audience before reeling it violently in; the metaphoric spoonful of sugar before the much-needed medicine. The levity quickly peters out, forcing the audience to confront one terrifying reality after the other, securely strapped in a fast train to hell until the narrative reaches its explosive, cinematic climax.
Taralalla is a discomforting and many times terrifying watch. Certainly not amongst the most ‘fun’ plays I’ve ever been to, but unquestionably one of the, if not the most important. It raises a mirror to society’s face and forces us to look and address what we see, even if just by asking these questions sincerely; What kind of citizen am I? What do I stand for? What could my contribution be, other than lamenting corruption, a failed system and contemplating migrating?
Taralalla is on at St James Cavalier from Wednesday 3rd to Sunday 7th November. Definitely not to be missed.
Read more about it and get your tickets here - https://www.kreattivita.org/en/event/taralalla/2021-10-30/