The Malta Independent 23 September 2018, Sunday

Stitching Up censorship

Tuesday, 4 September 2018, 08:49 Last update: about 19 days ago

Following a legal battle that spanned almost a decade, finally Anthony Neilson’s play, ‘Stitching’, is set to be staged in Malta. We speak with MIKHAIL BASMADJIAN to find out how he feels about revisiting this controversial piece and how it has helped to make theatre censorship in Malta a thing of the past.

They say that truth may be stranger than fiction and, certainly, the story of the battle to perform Anthony Neilson's Stitching in Malta is one worthy of a play.

Famed for the headline-hitting controversy that surrounded the 2009 production in Malta, Stitching was banned by local authorities, which cited its dark themes and references as unsuitable for the Maltese public.

Producer Adrian Buckle (of Unifaun Theatre Company fame), alongside the play's director Christopher Gatt and actors Pia Zammit and Mikhail Basmadjian, went on to fight the play's censorship in both Maltese and European courts. This eventually signalled the end of The Maltese Board of Film and Stage Classification - the body that had initially banned the production - and, consequently, creative censorship in Malta.   

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This year, at last, Malta is to be added to the list of countries to stage Stitching, an achievement that inspires great relief for Basmadjian and the rest of the cast and crew. "Everyone knows the 'banned and disallowed' play story, but it feels great to have helped to change the antiquated censorship laws in this country," he explains. "Had Stitching been staged as planned 10 years ago without a hitch, we might still have to rely on an autocratic committee to tell us what we can and cannot show to, as they believed, the weak and highly impressionable Maltese public. Now, at least, audiences can decide for themselves, and playwright Anthony Neilson can say that his script has been instrumental in changing Maltese censorship laws."

The play's local controversy stemmed from its darker themes, as it follows a couple who pick apart their relationship, stitch by stitch, and shows how they deal with the emotional and psychological trauma of the loss of a child. Although their journey is brutal and savage at times, the intimacy and tenderness that underpins the story has helped to maintain the popularity of Stitching worldwide.

"The script is fast-paced and naturalistic and is basically a love story that most of us have experienced - I'm sure that many of the scenes will resonate with the audience," continues Basmadjian. "The play explores how a couple deals with losing a child - sometimes the trauma and guilt may be too strong to face and one degrades (or elevates) to other ways of coping, creating a world of games and illusion. It highlights the many thoughts and feelings which we, as perishable, imperfect human beings, may have, but never put into words. Neilson's message here, I think, is that we should not fear these feelings, for we can only learn their value - or lack thereof - by facing our dark side, although some may deny that we have one at all."

The task of portraying the play's central couple once again falls to Basmadjian and Zammit, still under the banner of Unifaun Theatre Company and Gatt's direction. As the team begins rehearsals for the new production, Basmadjian describes how they feel to be revisiting Stitching. "It was like we had our last 'kitchen' performance just the day before! It all came back immediately - the emotions within the script, the mega-stress we faced due to the ban, the threats of being arrested if we performed the play in public, the intimacy of privately performing in people's kitchens... But we have worked on so many productions together that the feeling of closeness and unity will always be there."

The almost 10-year interim period also presents a new challenge to the cast. "The characters in this play are in their late 20s. When the play was banned Pia and I were already over that age, and now, 10 years down the line, even more so! Approaching this play from an 'older' perspective plays out differently. After the 10-year lapse I picked up the script again and this time found things I never noticed before - hence interpretation will also be different and take on a more mature, controlled, life-experienced output. However, the piece is beautifully written and lends itself to a thousand interpretations."

Despite the past decade of legal struggles, controversy and the impact on Malta's theatre censorship laws, Basmadjian still feels it is important that Maltese audiences have the chance to watch Stitching. "They can finally appreciate the beauty of a love story riddled with loss and guilt, can empathise with the characters, question their motives, and perhaps ask themselves why this play was banned in the first place.

"It is a very moving piece that will not leave audiences indifferent. Any reaction the play evokes in the audience will help it reach its target, because that is what theatre is all about: to provoke, to question, to learn, to agree, to object, to hate, to love. Such is the beauty of theatre."  

Unifaun Theatre Company will be producing six performances of 'Stitching' at the Teatru Manoel Studio Theatre on 14, 15, 16, 19, 21 and 23 September. Tickets are priced at €20 and are available via the Teatru Manoel website at www.teatrumanoel.com.mt


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