A cultural and creative renaissance

Ariadne Massa

The resurgence of arts and culture reflects Maltese enthusiasm for engaging with the outside world, despite recent rows over censorship

Haunting lyrics sung in Hebrew floated across the concert hall taking the soul on a journey to seek the true meaning of love in a conflicted world beyond thorny borders. The spellbinding performance in October of Israel’s The Idan Raichel Project and Maltese percussionist Renzo Spiteri staged as part of an initiative by Anne Catisson of France to share a message of peace and tolerance through music – ended with a standing ovation. Successful multicultural evenings like this, where diverse talents seem to fuse seamlessly, signal Malta’s new mission to take a leap beyond its shores into the international sphere of arts and culture. Culture has always been important for the Maltese people – from classical opera for the well-heeled to slapstick comedy in the native language – but it has gone into overdrive in the past decade.

As Malta’s horizons have broadened, local actors now seek to leave the amateur stage behind for training and the chance to tread the boards of London’s West End. EU membership has been instrumental in facilitating this exchange and in luring foreign acts to perform on the island.

While some say there are almost too many events taking place – “enough to empty your wallet” – there’s certainly been a wholesale transformation since the 1980s, when the local music scene was limited to cultural-political competitions such as Festival Wardakanta or the patriotic rock opera Ġensna.

Last summer was packed with major shows, such as performances by Scissor Sisters and Kelis at the Isle of MTV concert and gigs by Elton John and Rod Stewart. Malta’s own top international tenor, Joseph Calleja, also returned to his roots, keeping his summer date with the audience and giving a memorable performance with American legend Dionne Warwick and Italian star Riccardo Cocciante.

Smaller events included the Mediterranean Literature Festival, the Malta Jazz Festival staged along the idyllic Grand Harbour, a performance by the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre company, open-air plays and art exhibitions.

One show that had people talking for weeks was Theatre Anon’s ambitious production, Ospizio, staged behind the thick walls of the abandoned Ospizio – a building once used by the Knights of Malta as an asylum, orphanage and hospital. The brainchild of Paul Portelli, this original work was visually stimulating, creatively inventive, with boundless energy and a talented cast that proved that theatre in Malta is flourishing.

The only cloud on the horizon has been a censorship controversy over Stitching – a provocative play by Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson dealing with a couple in crisis over the loss of a child. The case made headlines as Malta became the first country to ban the production: the Film and Stage Classification Board felt it was “blasphemous” and that the “envelope has been pushed beyond the limits of public decency”. The case went to court and the judge upheld the decision to ban the play because it was unacceptable in a “democratic society founded on the rule of law” for any person to be allowed to swear in public – even in a theatre as part of a script. This fuelled a national outcry and the production company, Unifaun Theatre, which has been pushing the boundaries of conventional theatre, appealed against the court’s decision and announced it would take its case, if necessary, to the European courts.

Following several other censorship incidents – such as the ban of a university newspaper from campus over a satirical story dealing with a man’s sexual exploits – the government has set up a parliamentary committee to establish what constitutes an obscenity, since the legal definition was last updated in 1975. The current storms over censorship in theatre, literature and the visual arts might not be seen as important were it not for the fact that they serve to actively discourage potential creators. While such incidents can be considered to be a natural evolution of a country’s identity, they also risk holding back its social and political maturity and its intellectual growth. The controversies may have been in the headlines for months, but it seems very few things will stifle people’s energy, and there are plenty of signs that Malta is on the verge of a cultural and creative renaissance. The indications are that the political will is also there. While the rest of Europe has been cutting national cultural budgets, Malta has done the opposite and allocated €1.1 million to the arts – the first time the budget has implicitly recognised that the creative sector contributes value to the economy.

Such moves can bring enormous beneficial changes both to the field of culture and to the country as a whole, preparing the island for 2018, when it is due to showcase its rich heritage as the European Capital of Culture.

About the author:

Ariadne Massa is Chief Sub-Editor of The Times of Malta.


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