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William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play (abridged)

by Reed Martin & Austin Tichenor

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Devil's Advocate

Devil's Advocate

AUTHOR: Donald Freed

VENUE: St James Cavalier

DATES: 20, 21, 22, 27, 28, 29 March

DIRECTOR: Michael Fenech

CAST: Manuel Cauchi, Paul Portelli

SUMMARY: Set in Panama City in 1989 during General Noriega’s downfall.  It follows Noam Chomsky in suggesting disturbing parallels between the capture and trial of Noriega and that of Saddam Hussein for crimes originally supported by America.

 What the papers said:

Engaging in political relationships

I persevere as a spectator, returning countless times to the theatre, even in a Maltese context and a season which is proving particularly dry. Unable to pinpoint one thing in particular that I hunger for, I know that little has rewarded that emotional or intellectual satisfaction and entertainment that the theatre is specifically able to feed. Until now, it is Unifaun Theatre that has provided insight into the possibility of satisfaction in this regard.

Despite the sensationalism and provocation that they seemingly advocate in their advertising, it is human feelings of loss and love that they succeeded in putting across in Blasted; it is the intense human pain surrounding the loss of a child that they hoped to convey in their banned production of Stitching, which I had the opportunity of witnessing in private rehearsal; and now, with Donald Freed’s Devil’s Advocate, under the direction of Michael Fenech, they are feeding us with an opportunity to engage intellectually with political drive in the very specific context of the relationship between General Nuriega and Archbishop Laboa, in a production that is dramatically coherent and aesthetically moving. More than the political self-righteousness of the US, or its manipulative global politics in the specific regard of its dealings with Panama under the administration of G.H.W. Bush, the play looks at the developing relationship between two individuals who seek each other out in this particular political setting.

Their underlying understanding of each other is played out through humorousjibes, mutual confrontation, sympathy,and possibly even manipulation, and a movementtowards finding from the other the redemption they both crave. All this is done through a script that is rhythmically poetic andchallengingly engaging. Paul Portelli as Nuriega and Manuel Cauchi as Laboa, render their characters in a three dimensional embodiment.

Mr Portelli particularly succeeds in bringing out subtle shifts in the dynamics of his performance that truly give life to his character. He physically shifts inandout of the repetitive trauma of the deafeningly torturing sounds of rock and roll continuously being played outside the windows of Nuriega’s sanctuary in an attempt at drawing him out. In a scene that shifts momentarily from the dominant realistic mode of the performance, Mr Portelli gives poetic form to Nuriega’s readiness to be more open,making the move towards the possibility of redemption, even more distressing in its rawness.

The politics is complex, and would be well served by some knowledge of the context prior to viewing. Laboa’s role is particularly ambiguous politically because of his representation of sanctuary, his representation of his history as the devil’s advocate, and in the specifics of his own personal history and ambiguities. The references to the characters’ previous meetings play on this ambiguity further. This ambiguity does, however, enhance the unfolding intrigue of the performance in the central question which Laboa continues to ask of Nuriega: Why have you come to me? As well as in the mystery of what redemption he himself stands to gain from Nuriega.

Dramatically the performance is further enhanced by Pierre Portelli’s detailed set and Chris Gatt’s lighting that provides for the tension of realism and poetry in the production.

This production brings together a handful of the more mature artists that have developed an ability of working together to select and make an intriguing play rich and engaging.

The play can still be seen this weekend and next at St James Cavalier.

Louise Ghirlando The Times Weekender Saturday, March 28, 2009

 

Better the Devil you Know

The printed programme for the Unifaun production of Donald Freed’s Devil’s Advocate(St James Cavalier) includes a useful little note about the historical context of this play which is set in Panama in 1989 when US forces invaded the country, forcing the country’s military dictator, Manuel Noriega, to seek refuge inside the Papal Nunciature headed by Archbishop Sebastian Laboa. On seeing the play, however, I realised how much more knowledge is needed to understand what Freed, a leading political dramatist of our time, is driving at.

In fact, this long (over 90 minutes) one-acter pumps so many facts and so many opinions into the audience that I sometimes found it difficult to make things fit into the dramatist’s general picture.The last 30 minutes or so of the production reveal so much that the audience is expected to accept more or less as the truth, that in spite of the apocalyptic atmosphere Michael Fenech so brilliantly creates, I felt the dramatist is here squeezing out too much in order to give the play an intellectually acceptable ending.

Freed wants to attack a number of targets in the play, too many perhaps. Although Noriega was an unsavoury dictator, he was the head of his country, so the United States was hardly justified in invading Panama City and toppling Noriega who had served their interests for so long and was even employed by the CIA. The play hints very broadly at US interests in destroying Panama’s agricultural economy so as to make way for sinister American commercial interests.

Freed’s Noriega, who for most of the performance appears in a bathrobe without any of his dictatorial ornaments, appears physically in the worst of lights, especially in Paul Portelli’s manic and highly physical performance, but he is allowed to speak at length in his own defence.

He admits his weaknesses, such as his cavalier attitude towards his wife and his deep engagement in the country’s hugely profitable drug industry, but claims his aim was not to line his own pockets, but to aid the people.

The statement, however, seems to be meaningless when he adds that he is the people. What we have to accept is his bitterness against America, whose interests he served so well in the past.

The play consists of an energetic and mostly gripping dialogue between Noriega and Laboa, a Jesuit who has come a long way in the Vatican’s diplomatic service as well as being the Devil’s Advocate in all Church cases in which a person’s canonisation is being proposed. For once Unifaun has not pointed out an intriguing fact, this being that some years after relinquishing his post in Panama, Laboa was appointed Apostolic Nuncioto Malta in 1995, a post he retained until 1998. He died, it seems, four years after leaving Malta.

As many of my readers will guess, Laboa is not a saintly figure, though he invokes God’s mercy more than once in the play. Freed emphasises Laboa’s early history as an activist in Basque constitutional aspirations, suggesting a leftist libertarian spirit. This partly explains why Laboa, who has been away in Spain because of his serious illness, has returned to his post following the US invasion. He would, therefore, be the man to wish to make Noriega’s defeat complete, apart perhaps from carrying out what the play suggests as being the Vatican’s nefarious aim to get rid of the dictator.

Freed is clearly as hostile to the Vatican as he is to President George Bush (senior) but I think he presents Laboa very shabbily as a Catholic priest, for what decent priest would have urged Noriega again and again to confess his crimes in full knowledge that all being said in the room is being overheard by US listeners through a bug installed in the ceiling? The closing minutes of the play have Laboa confess, with an overflowing feeling of shame, that he believes the Church (and he himself as its agent) will never be forgiven by that same God who will eventually forgive Noriega. Noriega has been overcome by Laboa’s strategy, but Laboa is, from a moral point of view, an even bigger loser. If one tries to forget this and the wild accusations made by Noriega against the Church (and obviously believed in by Freed) in one of the most powerful and strongly written scenes, including references to Roberto Calvi (not mentioned by name but clearly the man indicated), one can still enjoy the ding-dong battle of the two formidable adversaries as each fights to make the other man spit out the truth.

Making full use of Portelli’s remarkable bodily flexibility and ability to be grotesque without exciting laughter or incredulity, Fenech turns this actor into a figure suggestive of medieval demons.

From his first entrance, as the Americans outside the Nunciature try to break his morale (they nearly broke mine) by playing rock music at full blast, Portelli wriggled and used his arms in a variety of grotesque gestures, and this he repeated atmoments of great stress.

The climax is reached, however, when Noriega sees he will be delivered to his enemies and prepares to shoot himself in the head. This leads Laboato seize a crucifix from his private altar and begin to pray fearfully for divine mercy, leading Noriega to burst out into his wildest physical actions and throw off his bathrobe, revealing the red underpants his enemies have sneeringly accused him of wearing, considering him a witch doctor.

I suspect Freed, or perhaps the director even more than the dramatist, by juxtaposing the two sets of wild behaviour, may want us to see that the Catholic prelate and the dictator with his Indio blood may have something deep in common. Have they both been acting out mumbo jumbo? Portelli’s performance is an unforgettable one, though I have a sneaking suspicion it was over the top. Only a close perusal of the text and its stage directions, with which I am not yet familiar, will allow me to pass a surer judgment.

Manuel Cauchi’s Laboa has his outbursts, but by and large the performance is restrained, offering a great contrast with Portelli’s.

This Laboa is a deep one, a person who is torn between his priestly vows and his political-cum-official mission.

Cauchi makes us appreciate the man’s great intellect and persistence, a persistence that is bound to make the wilder Noriega submit at the end and to go, dressed in the general’s uniform Laboa has helped him put on, to surrender to his US enemies. His final scene provides an emotionally moving portrait of a priest who feels he has betrayed his faith and holy vocation.

Fenech’s direction makes a strong contrast between the claustrophobic room in the Nunciature in which the two characters fight it out, and the wicked blasted music being played outside. I suspect this production has the best set I have yet seen at St James Cavalier, surely Portelli’s masterpiece, complemented by Chris Gatt’s always superb lighting.The series of paintings showing priestly (mostly Dominicans, I thought) martyrs going right round the upper level of the round theatre produces an effect of a Church Militant that remains a great political force.

Paul Xuereb THE SUNDAY TIMES - April 5, 2009

pictures by Joseph A. Borg