‘We focus on the comedic elements of Reza’s play, audiences will laugh’

A Maltese translation of Art, Yasmina Reza’s modern classic, is being premiered this week on the local stage. Translator and director Albert Marshall shares his thoughts
Albert Marshall (second from left) with actors Sean Buhagiar, Ray Calleja and Mikhail Basmadjian. Photo: Darryl Cauchi.

Penned by award-winning French playwright Yasmina Reza, Art is – contrary to what its title implies – first and foremost a play about friendships. Three men who have been friends for a very long time slowly start to realise that they way they view life no longer quite aligns. And it’s all because of a painting.

Without wanting to spoil too much of the story, I will just say that it will strike a chord with those of us who often wonder why we keep certain friendships alive. Now, the play has been translated into Maltese by Albert Marshall, who will also be directing it part of the Strada Stretta programme. I caught up with him for a chat about the process and what audiences should expect from this production.

What inspired you to translate this specific play?

I was actually approached by Kevin Drake, who is the artistic director for Strada Stretta, and who has always had a bit of a bee in his bonnet about this play, imagining how it would work out in Maltese. His precise words were: “Bert, only you can do it in Maltese. And direct it, too.”

I have always loved the play. I was working in London when it premiered at the Wyndham Theatre in 1996, and it was brilliant.  Yasmina Reza’s idiom, translated by Christopher Hampton, was impeccable. The translation worked and, since then, I always wanted to see it done here in Maltese. Over the years I forgot about it, until the opportunity arose thanks to Kevin and the Valletta Cultural Agency.

The role of the three friends is taken by Mikhail Basmadjian, Ray Calleja and Sean Buhagiar. How did you bring the cast together?

Of course one of the perks of being both translator and director was that I got to choose my own cast. I had just seen Basmadijan and Calleja working together in La Cage Aux Folles at Teatru Manoel, and they were brilliant. I figured they’d be perfect together for Arti. And I knew that Sean Buhagiar had been missing being on stage, so I tempted him with this and… he said yes.

Which part of the process do you enjoy most? Translating or directing?

I did spend four years in Luxembourg as a linguist, working withing the EU. Luckily for me, I wasn’t just working on boring EU documents, but even on theatrical repertoire like Bertolt Brecht and Ugo Betti. Arti, was originally in French, which was one of my languages. I like to translate directly from the original, while accompanied by authoritative translations, so in this case I had the Italian version on one side and Christopher Hampton’s on the other, besides Reza’s original text. I used both works to support and corroborate my translation.

That was a great process that I really enjoyed.  The directorial aspect is a bigger challenge because there are time constraints. But the whole process gave me a pleasant hiatus from the administrative side of my responsibilities as chairman for Arts Council Malta.

The Maltese language has very unique characteristics. How do you feel the language lends itself to the themes and dialogues of Art?

Yasmina Reza’s French isn’t street French, she is an intellectual who loves the language, and it shows. My approach was not to try to translate an intellectual French idiom to Maltese. I took an artistic decision to make sure that the way I read the original wasn’t too cerebral. I wanted to emphasise the more ‘vulgar’ elements of Reza. And she has those. Despite the erudite French and her extremely philosophical logic, there are strong elements where Arti can be described as a comedy. It’s a very ambivalent piece of theatre. Its first representation awarded Reza for Comedy of Year and she was a bit dumbfounded with that, insisting that she wrote a tragedy. But as translator, I opted for the Malti tat-triq, mhux tal-università  – street language rather than intellectual language. This, without betraying the intrinsic fabric of the original, naturally.

My reading accentuated the element of psychology of friendships and the communication between three very close friends. We are taking the direction to create laughter and to find the lighter elements. We respect Reza’s cold logic but lighten it. For this, I rest on the technical comedic competencies of the actors, giving importance to pacing, dramatic pauses and so forth.

In this way I believe we have created balanced work. The ending is not as serious as might be expected – we leaned on comedy and not on tragedy. The ending is a reconciliation.

Finally, how important is it to continue producing works like Arti on the local Maltese arts scene, and how do you envision the future of translated works in the Maltese theatre?

Speaking with my Arts Council Malta hat on, the strategy is to open up theatrical productions that others won’t touch, because they don’t sell as much commercially. That is our remit, so we do Pinter, we do Ionescu, we do the drama that needs to be part of the national repertoire.  I believe that support should be given to these projects. On a general level, the Council maintains efforts to give financial support to these kinds of play and to promote plays in Maltese so that the repertoire includes a diversity of Maltese language. We need to bring in the lighter side of life.

Arti is produced by Valletta Cultural Agency as part of its Strada Stretta programme. The play runs on April 21, 22, 23, 28, 29 and 30 at Splendid, Strait Street, Valletta. Tickets here.

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