No Sleeping Beauties | Steve Hili on The Adult Panto

Anyone interested in the general direction of the Maltese ‘arts and culture’ scene is bound to have formed an opinion about Valletta 2018 — better known colloquially as “V18”, though its overstaffed PR machine has been keen to quash that tag of late, deeming it off-brand.

I’m writing this at the tail end of a balmy pre-summer’s day, after having actually enjoyed a V18-supported event, so I’ll keep both the ranting and mild hypocrisy down to a minimum here. But I will say that the focus on branding is starting to grate a little on me, along with the feeling that somehow, the whole initiative seems to be characterised by an insistent tendency to miss the wood for the trees.

This, along with the fact that consistency and sleek branding seems to run counter to the behaviour and reputation of V18’s Chairman Jason Micallef.

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Valletta, when it’s allowed to just do its thing.

No doubt already slotted in as a gaffe-prone, politically-appointed chair-warmer by a large chunk of those with an eye on the island’s cultural scene, the man is clearly a political animal, with a crude but nonetheless effective ability to tap into ready-to-burst emotional veins among the supporters of his political-ideological home base.

It creates something of a critical impasse, where anyone criticising Micallef and the Valletta 2018 Foundation is branded an elitist and, as the above-linked example involving Mario Vella suggests, something of an ingrate. Add a dash of that peculiarly Maltese brand of “If you don’t agree with what I’m doing it means you’re just a stooge of the other political party” into the mix – et voila!

But like I said, I’m amenable to take all of this philosophically, and even to wring out some positives from an equation whose results seem to be either a churn of deafening quietism (a large percentage of artists in Malta and Gozo are somehow tied to V18, and therefore contracted to remain silent on any shortcomings), or a pile of broken promises.

It creates something of a critical impasse, where anyone criticising Micallef and the Valletta 2018 Foundation is branded an elitist and even, perhaps, something of an ingrate

Because at the very least, V18 appears to have created something resembling a ‘mainstream’ under and against which other more independent-minded initiatives can emerge. It may all sound like scraping the bottom of the barrel of hope, but I think it’s a matter of focus and perspective that feels important.

It certainly had an impact on our devising of Apocalesque!, a comeback show for our little burlesque/cabaret troupe after a four-year hiatus. Somewhere down the line of devising scripts and planning rehearsals with our resident director Nicole, I was struck by the realisation of how most of our shows — having been performed during a time when the centre-right, ‘Catholic-Democrat’ Nationalist Party was still in power — would previously be concerned with issues of ‘public decency’ and censorship.

backstage at the apocalesque

Backstage at the Apocalesque, 17.05.18 (dress rehearsal). Photo by Jacob Sammut

We knew we were pushing an envelope that had more to do with matters of morality and antiquated laws — which have thankfully now gone the way of the dodo.

This time, however, the motivating factors had less to do with easily-understandable cries for freedom, and more about puncturing a zeitgeist based around gentrification and the grandstanding so eagerly offered up by Micallef and his ilk. With V18 swallowing up so much of the cultural oxygen, we felt compelled to blow some of our own air out.

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Undine LaVerve at the Apocalesque, 17.05.18 (dress rehearsal). Photo by Jacob Sammut

And I’m glad to see that we weren’t the only ones. Fresh off our show — and sharing one of our own performers, the inimitable Undine LaVerve — this year’s edition of Steve Hili’s Adult Panto puts the tale of Sleeping Beauty through its crude-and-rude wringer, and the go-for-broke approach was actually born out of a desire to swerve away from mainstream practices and do something loud and fun instead.

Throwing some insights my way, Hili recounts how the ‘Adult Panto’ series — now five editions old — in fact started off while he and other cast members would be goofing off backstage while taking part in the traditional Christmas pantos.

“I had been in a couple of traditional pantos and there always seemed to reach a point in rehearsals — when everyone was tired because we were in the middle of production week — that we would be messing about and coming up with our own jokes. A lot of these jokes were very very naughty, and we would always lament the fact that we could never actually use them in to what to all intents and purposes is a kiddies show!”

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The cast of Sleeping Beauty: The Adult Panto. Photo by Sergio Morana

That simple prompt led to a series of raunchy shows existing at the periphery of the local theatrical scene, but performed with what I suspect is the same devil-may-care gusto of our our burlesque acts.

Being largely based in the UK these days, Hili — previously an energetic fixture of local radio — extols the “DIY” approach to comedy, and believes this to be, ultimately, the most liberating approach to the material that one can adopt.

“I have found that creating my own work and shows really works for the type of comedy I enjoy doing and I am good at. You would hope that artists here would feel the urge to adopt a DIY spirit. As part of V18 or as a response to it. That would be quite a legacy.”

In fact, turning his guns on V18 in particular, Hili laments how the Foundation and everything associated with it has not been successful in fostering the kind of freewheeling atmosphere of creativity that he describes.

“The way I had hoped that V18 would work was like the Edinburgh International Festival works,” Hili says.

You would hope that artists here would feel the urge to do adopt a DIY spirit

“I had hoped that there would be lots of high-brow culture but that this would breed fringe events… I would hope that V18 was (and still is) a great opportunity for artists to take the bull by the horns and to create fringe events that offer alternatives including perhaps a way of dissecting the current political scene in a way that is free of the toxic environment that seems to have taken over the islands.”

Ultimately, however, Hili zones in on what will always motivate him to keep creating rough-diamond shows like this.

“We feel like we are thumbing our noses at authority. And I love it.”

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Photo by Sergio Morana

Sleeping Beauty: The Adult Panto will be staged at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta until June 15. For more information, click here

April Update | Censorship, Near Future SF & Campus Book Fest

April got underway to a head-start as I finished up my soujourn at the Kinemastik Film Club by screening the both beloved and reviled cult classic The Fifth Element to what seemed to be a pretty nostalgic and misty-eyed audiences.

The film was certainly a lot of fun, but it also felt a bit patchier than a lot of us remembered; with a jokey mess of a plot and visuals that were — yes — stunning in parts but hardly had enough ‘wow’ set-piece moments to justify the cult status Besson’s space opera still enjoys (as bolstered by both the Moebius inspired settings and Jean Paul-Gaultier costumes).

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Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element (1997), dir. Luc Besson

It was still somewhat heartening to see all that taking place on the big screen at the British Legion in Valletta, as I’m pottering away on my own piece of decidedly ambitious but also — one hopes, as a check on said ambition — silly and satirical slice of sci-fi. But soon after that, I was invited to participate to a project that teased at the more sober qualities of that same genre…

Archived Futures Harvest: Near-future SF writing in Rabat (sort of…)

Last week was in fact a pretty hectic one for this exact reason, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t rewarding. While details remain under wraps until the first week of May when the exhibition is set to open, what I can in fact tell you is that my friend Glen Calleja of Studio Solipsis invited me to do some writing for him at his Rabat studio, and that it was a great — if rather exhausting — time.

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

The extended exercise took its cue from a workshop organised some months back, and focused on a collective imaginary of the future. The content I was creating channeled paranoia about surveillance and smart technology, and took the form of fabricated (not ‘fake’!) news articles, surveys and the interpretation of surreal prose texts — or are they coded messages by underground movements?

Even apart from the coolness of working in Rabat and Glen’s zen-like demeanour and keen intelligence — and, of course, the project’s own rich potential, which runs on the intriguing paradox of mixing futuristic speculations with the instruments of the archive — gave me ample opportunity to flex some storytelling muscles.

I’ve always been one to work to limits, but being told to write something creatively based on a fabricated news report, or culled from — also fabricated — surveys and coded messages, gave me a special kind of frisson. I will definitely be applying some of these devices to my own writing in the future.

The Archived Futures Harvest exhibition launches on May 5 and runs for two months

Talking in public: Campus Book Fest, ACM Lab

Speaking about writing at the Campus Book Festival, April 4. Photo by Rik Van Colen

Speaking about writing at the Campus Book Festival, April 4. Photo by Rik Van Colen

As it happens, Glen Calleja was a stall-mate of my dad’s at the Campus Book Festival which ran at the beginning of the month — book-binding is one of his many skills — and it was after he heard me speak at the event that he proposed we collaborate on the Archived Futures project.

The talk — which took place on the bright and sunny morning of April 4 — went reasonably well, I felt. The original idea was to do something about MIBDUL together with Inez, but she happened to be in London for a workshop at the time. So instead of a visually-enhanced guide of how we’re slowly putting the comic together, I decided to speak about how my first novel kicked my ass into submission and taught me that structure is a very important thing indeed — and not, as I had foolishly assumed, the provenance of those who lack verve and imagination.

Some audience interaction proved that I was not alone in these concerns, and it’s always nice to find real-life correlatives to conversations you would normally have online — which lend a disturbing patina of anonymity even to your closest friends.

Arts Council Malta Head of Strategy Toni Attard and intellectual property lawyer Jeanine Rizzo at the ACM Lab on censorship/self-censorship in Malta, April 21

Arts Council Malta Head of Strategy Toni Attard and lawyer Jeanine Rizzo at the ACM Lab on censorship/self-censorship in Malta, April 21

More recently, I was asked to participate to the latest edition of the ‘ACM Lab’, which are public talks organised by Arts Council Malta on various issues germane to Maltese culture. This time around it was all about censorship and/or censorship, with lawyer Dr Jeanine Rizzo breaking down the new laws pertaining to freedom of expression, which led to a debate with theatre-maker Adrian Buckle — who bore the brunt of the law as it previously stood — and Mario Azzopardi of the Film Classification board.

The discussion was polite enough, with all of us agreeing that transparency is key in age classification — citing the BBFC as an admirable benchmark — but that when it came to theatrical productions in particular — whose producers are now free to self-classify in Malta — an element of risk always remained.

ACM’s head of strategy Toni Attard asked me whether I think Malta’s artists were ready to take full advantage of the newly relaxed laws, and whether evidence of this can be found on the ground. As ever, I believe that the ‘slow’ approach is necessary to all of this; we should keep our eyes peeled on what’s happening, but also be patient enough to wait until enough evidence has accumulated before making our final analysis.

And in our spare time…

Beyond all that, it appears that science fiction is something of a running thread this month. I’m taking steps towards making a trip to WorldCon 75 at Helsinki possible right now — read: assessing the financial viability of it all — which has motivated me to pick up a couple of Hugo shorlistees.

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I’ve started with Ada Palmer’s ambitious and, let’s be frank, pretty fucking dazzling Too Like Lightning, which I can only describe as far-future SF written by a member of the Enlightenment literati from the 18th century. I’m only about a quarter of the way through and I’m not sure I’m quite getting all the nuances of the labyrinthine world that Palmer — a 35-year-old professor of history from the University of Chicago — plunges us into, but I’m also hooked.

Easier on the intellect but no less engaging is The Expanse, which I’ve finally gotten to after stalling for a few months and following a slew of recommendations. It certainly doesn’t disappoint: the world-building (!) is tight, controlled and crisp, the characters are richly but clearly drawn and the political intrigue is on the right side of soap opera.

Sure, Fifth Element it ain’t. But I’m looking forward to burning through the rest of it.