Castillo is Take Two’s ballsy theatrical debut. It is very loosely based on multi-award-winner Clare Azzopardi’s 2018 book.
Despite having had Claire Azzopardi’s book waiting patiently in my home library for years now, I never managed to get around to reading it. I consequently went into yesterday’s show without an inkling as to what I was about to witness. I admit; it did occur to me to race through the book last week just to be able to compare and contrast the presented theatrical piece with the literary work as one is prone to do. But common sense eventually prevailed and I resisted that particular temptation. I’m a slow reader and proud of it. Time should be taken with good books, ideally with a full pipe and a hot mug in hand. Scratch that; time should be taken with a good story, whatever the medium. But especially with award-winning books by Clare Azzopardi.
So yes, I walked into Spazju Kreattiv without the faintest. All I knew was that Mark Doneo was going to play this cocky-looking policeman as per the promotional posters. Which I knew would be amusing enough. Oh and naturally, I was also titillated by fact that it was written and directed by the brilliant Carlos DeBattista and Abigail Mallia respectively, the incessantly ingenious duo who also gave us Gizelle (2006), L-Evangelisti (2008), Deceduti (2010) and the charming cinematic gem, Limestone Cowboy (2017). Oh yes… and a little something called Min Imissu…
During an after-performance Q and A, Abigail and Carlos expounded on the many ways their script differs from the original source material. I gathered that while the book remained the main source of inspiration and the story is told through and revolves around Azzopardi’s characters, the script was totally rewritten to better convey the story the Take Two team felt needed to be said. I’m not really able to discuss this in much more detail as, as I mentioned above, I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading the book.
Plotline (hopefully without giving too much away)
Amanda (Annalise Mifsud), a young expectant mother, has forever been questioning her own mother Emma’s (a dual role played by Simone Spiteri and Simone Zammit) decision to up and leave her and her father when Amanda was still a child. While trying to get to the bottom of this mystery, she comes across an as yet unpublished manuscript written by her aunt Cathy (Rachel Genovese) who had died in mysterious circumstances many years before. At every turn the figure of Castillo (Mark Doneo) crops up; an enigmatic Police Commissioner who is also the protagonist of a best-selling series of pulp novels written by Cathy before her sudden demise.
Blocking & Choreography
I hope I haven’t given away too much already. If I have, please forgive me. However, attempting to discuss any aspect of this play without divulging too much is proving to be an arduous task, primarily because of the unconventional way the narrative unfolds. Castillo’s primary ‘gimmick’, if I may, is the constant to-and-fro between time periods. Two narratives unfold simultaneously in two different eras, 1980s Malta and present-day Malta, leading up to one solid and satisfying conclusion. So what we’re treated to are a number of present-day segments, flashbacks, and in-betweens. And it’s those in-betweens that are so refreshing and exquisitely executed.
Characters which throughout the majority of the play exist in their own respective eras (present-day or 1980s Malta) now and then seem to be able to float into different time zones, gently slipping through the cracks of time-space, giving the whole thing a filmic, almost Interstellar-like quality at times. I’m not so sure if this was intentional (I think, probably not) but rather an unavoidable force of habit. Abigail is, after all, a consummate film and television director and she seems to have envisioned this theatrical production not too dissimilarly as she would have a screen production. I’m especially thinking of the play’s flashback transitions here. Their effectiveness is startling. There are blackouts between one scene and the other but even simple blackouts are hardly executed in conventional ways.
And there there’s this one particular scene involving four characters which was the theatrical equivalent to split-screen. This scene is a wonderful example of effective and original blocking. Two pairs of characters converse within a few feet of each other, each pair’s lines bouncing off the other’s in the most natural of ways, despite the fact that there is a thirty-year time lag between the two conversations taking place. The whole bit was choreographed like a dance. Fuckin’ fantastic scene.
It is these little flairs that elevate the written word to higher heights and glued me to my seat, not daring to miss out on a single word or a nuance. This is what makes Take Two so damn cool and different. They’re masters at grabbing your attention and keeping it hostage.
As is always the case with places like Spazju Kreattiv, the very confined space necessitates directors to come up with original ways to convey the characters’ worlds to attending audiences. The audio track was wonderfully utilised to this end. The story moves forward through the intelligent use of non-diegetic sound. Sometimes it is important for the audience to give their full attention to what is being heard on these recordings as they serve to actually move the plot forward. Other times they are subtler but still quite effective. Case in point, the scene involving two characters, a mirror… and a music box.
Who would have told me that I would have so many questions watching two women silently combing their hair in front of each other with a mirror standing between them? Are they the same person? Is she a reflection? Is she … a ghost? Better pay attention!
Script & Acting
The writing is, as was expected from DeBattista, astounding. It is writing as perhaps only Carlos and a few others of his ilk are capable of. As good as the lines are, of course, they are only as effective as their delivery. And here I must take a moment to note the casting which was utterly genial on two levels.
Firstly, every actor did a great job because they were able to play to their own strengths. None of the actors seemed to be in too unfamiliar waters. On the contrary, it felt like they were comfortable in their respective roles.
Doneo’s titular character is perhaps the most colourful of the bunch. Potty-mouthed, cigarette-wielding, lame-handed Commissioner Castillo is a blast to watch. Say what he will about initially not being too enthused about the idea of returning to stage after twenty years, Doneo seems like he is born to play this role, clearly enjoying every second of it.
With all his affectations, Castillo may initially appear to be little more than a caricature. But there’s good reason for this; the Police Commissioner isn’t entirely real. Or perhaps he is. Who knows? Go watch the play!
Clearly in love with himself, all Castillo seems to care about is that he continues to be. Not dissimilar to Collodi’s Pinocchio, Castillo recognises himself for what he is (limitations and all), but is also quite content to be the ruler of his own little realm.
Perhaps this detail doesn’t occur to Castillo himself, but he also serves another, more important purpose in relation to Simone Spiteri’s Emma. I’ll just continue with my Pinocchio allegory and namedrop Talking Cricket here.
Disclaimer: If nothing at all from the above paragraph makes sense, it’s perfectly all right. A second read after watching the performance will make much more sense. Again, I’m striving not to spoil anything. But this is bloody hard!
The rest of the cast is equally superb. We’re presented with real, flesh-and-blood characters who are believable every step of the way. Each character has a complete and defined arch and as an audience, we are welcome to walk every step of the voyage with them. I must point out here that at times, the feature-length (there we go, another cinematic reference) play offers the audience such a feverish rollercoaster of emotions that it sometimes threatens to feel overwhelming.
Rachel Genovese’s Cathy and Francesca Scerri’s Anne’s arches in particular offer ample opportunity for the actors to fully explore different sides to their characters in a relatively short amount of time. From one scene to the next, Anne and Cathy masterfully carry us from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.
All the actors’ timing, comic or otherwise, is brilliant. The rapid fire-back and forths between Doneo and Spiteri, and Doneo and Mifsud are particularly delicious. All of their give-and-takes are entertaining, the sensation not being too dissimilar to that of watching a great rap battle. And while I’m sure that (most of it) is scripted, a number of the quips sounded so natural that I wouldn’t be surprised to be treated to different dialogue were I to attend a second performance.
Andre Mangion’s subdued take on the humble, voice-of-reason Matteo is also quite charming. No real surprise there, Mangion has proven time and time again what a behemoth of an actor he is. Same goes for Daniela Carabott Pawley’s Gina, who gave one of the most realistic depictions of the typical Maltese ta’ wara l-persjana housewives.
And now for the other reason the casting was so inspired. Castillo casts different actors as the older and younger versions of two of the characters. A feat which in the best of circumstances, is always tricky to pull off. But here it worked marvelously. The actors playing the same characters not only look like each other (a lot), each pair of actors presented us with one authentic and solid character.
But really though, what is Castillo all about?
I’m pretty sure that, as in most cases, the taste patrons will leave the theatre with will differ according to the individual. I’m sure that what I left with from yesterday’s performance was by and large informed by who I am and how I personally relate to events around me.
On one aspect of its many surfaces, Castillo deals with the concept of the frustrated writer struggling to put words on a page. I could easily and readily relate to this element. There are few things worse in a writer’s life than being badgered by his or her own creations who mercilessly express their disappointment how the writer handles them.
But in truth…Mallia and Debattista’s version of Castillo isn’t about the author’s plight at all. Similarly to last year’s Taralalla (2021), it is a very necessary, stark piece of social commentary which leaves you with more questions than answers. And these are the parts to which I would imagine, nobody would be too eager to relate to, as doing so would mean staring the hideous parts of our society in the face.
Castillo did make me wonder, though. When faced with having to choose between living a normal, peaceful life and using my voice for the voiceless, what would the right choice be? And which road do I eventually take? Am I really expected to speak up? To be counted on? To fight other people’s battles? Which battles are my own? And perhaps more crucially…in a country where the search for the truth could mean risking your life, is the truth…
…is what’s right worth pursuing?
Castillo doesn’t answer these questions but it does hint at possible answers. It knows right from wrong and offers a brief understanding hug to the disillusioned…but offers no real solace. As the last scripted lines are uttered and Amanda and Matteo act on their fateful decision, one obvious fact is blatantly clear for all to understand.
We are the society we deserve.
Castillo is on at St James Cavalier until Sunday 20th February.
Read more about it and get your tickets here – https://www.kreattivita.org/en/event/castillo/2022-02-12/