The Malta Independent 21 November 2018, Wednesday

Urban star returns to Strait Street

Nikki Petroni Tuesday, 4 April 2017, 09:11 Last update: about 3 years ago

A lot is said about Valletta and its history, however it is rare to encounter a discussion on the city as an urban cultural hub for alternative artistic forms. A couple of years ago, I delivered a public talk at the University of Malta Valletta Campus on this topic, organised by the Department of History of Art. The aim was to see whether an urban consciousness had developed in Maltese art production by studying a number of modern works in relation to the writings of Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin.

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Towards the mid-20th century, there were some visual artists who explored Valletta's urban dimension. Their paintings revealed the essence of urban forms of social interaction and behaviour, technology and culture which planted their seeds within the streets and traditions of Valletta. The everyday experience became the subject matter of art, images of the power station, jazz musicians and anonymous café patrons appeared on the Maltese art scene, contrasting to the dominant religious-celestial visions of Giuseppe Calí and the later decorative church schemes by Emvin Cremona.

Although traditional practices and aesthetics persisted in the city, there developed a modern counter-cultural area that brought together musicians, performing artists, entertainers, local and foreign. Strada Stretta was the "socially and morally problematic" (as written in John Schofield and Emily Morrissey's 2013 study of The Gut) quarter of the capital, a Bakhtian counter-culture replete with mass forms of modern entertainment. Maltese and also international performers hailing from the UK, Norway, former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union brought Valletta to life during the dark hours of the night. There were musicians, cabaret artistes, cross-dressers, and also barmaids who populated the Egyptian Queen, the Cotton Club, the Morning Star, Las Vegas Jazz Club, and numerous others.

In their 1945 reconstruction report, Harrison and Hubbard noted that Valletta was "a city palpitating with life" so much so that "there are among its citizens some so conscious of this vital urge that they would raze its ramparts to rock and replace its canyon-like streets with spacious avenues." (Austen St. B. Harrison and R. P. S. Hubbard, Valletta: a report to accompany the outline plan for the region of Valletta and the Three Cities, 1945).

So much was happening and changing. George Cini's two volumes on Strait Street reveal the stories of those who inhabited the street and were an integral part of its history. Cini's books have made public stories which never formed part of Malta's official history but which are no less consequential.

Next week, another story will be told in the form of a newly-written play. This is the story of Christina Ratcliffe, the English singer who travelled to Malta to perform for the naval troops. The Strada Stretta Concept, under the auspices of the Valletta 2018 Foundation, will be hosting a production about one of Strait Street's best performers called The Star of Strait Street. It recounts the love story between Ratcliffe and Adrian 'Six Medal' Warburton, a photo-reconnaissance pilot. Both had stellar reputations and were madly in love. The ending of their story was greatly tragic, as were the endings of many intimate relationships during wartime.

Ratcliffe was the protagonist of the Morning Star, the legendary cabaret dance hall and restaurant located at the lower end of Strait Street in the Due Balli area. This production brings together multiple aspects of Strait Street's past and contemporary history. The Morning Star, a bohemian cultural venue, belonged to the Fiteni family which through marriage forged links with the Bonaci's of the Café Premier, Valletta's iconic live music venue and hangout for politicians, artists and intellectuals that embodied the city's post-war joie de vivre. It stood directly and contrastingly in front of the Casino Maltese, a bastion of traditional values. The Fiteni-Bonaci's formed the maternal family of Strada Stretta Concept's artistic director Dr. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci. The Ratcliffe-Warburton romance is an intriguing story in itself, but as Schembri Bonaci informs me, it develops into a sort of Shakespearean drama with the knowledge that Gianni Fiteni, who owned the Morning Star, was deeply in love with Ratcliffe.

This is unsurprising given the singer's beauty and talent. However, this dimension of the romantic tragedy is not included in The Star of Strait Street, which focuses on Ratcliffe's life. In fact, she is the only character who is physically represented in the play.

The Star of Strait Street, a musical play, was written by Philip Glassborow and features Polly March and Larissa Bonaci as Christina Ratcliffe in her older and younger days respectively. The musical director is Geoff Thomas, whilst choreography is by Emma Loftus, with hair and make-up by Jackie Grima.

Various textual sources provoked the creation of the production, namely Ratcliffe's personal memoirs published in local newspapers, and the books by Frederick R. Galea and Paul McDonald.

Unbeknownst to Schembri Bonaci, Glassborow and March had been working on a production about Strait Street's performer after the pair had successfully collaborated on other shows. The choice of Splendid as a venue is very fitting. Splendid is the only cultural venue in Strait Street today, surrounded more by legal and corporate offices than it is by bars and clubs, quite a difference to its past environs. The venue was recently used as an exhibition space by the BA and MA in Fine Arts students in the Department of History of Art who showed pieces from various projects they are currently working on.

Like Cini's compendium of memoirs of the real people of Strait Street, the new play promises to represent Ratcliffe's memories of Malta as she penned them.

 

The Star of Strait Street will be performed on 4, 5 and 6 April at Splendid, Strait Street. Information may be found on the Facebook event listing found on the Strada Stretta Concept page


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