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by Anthony Neilson

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Tebut Isfar

ta ' Clare Azzopardi















AUTHOR: Trevor Zahra

VENUE: Sir Temi Zammit Hall, University of Malta, Tal-Qroqq

DATES: 21, 22 November 2009


CAST: John Suda, Michael Tabone, Ninette Micallef, Mary Rose Mallia, Simon Curmi, Miriam Fiteni, Marcel Zammit Marmara, Tony Ellul, Jeremy Abdilla, Sean Buhagiar

SUMMARY: Is-Surmast reġa’ ġej! Meqjusa bħala l-aktar kummiedja ta’ suċċess bil-Malti, Is-Surmast ta’ Trevor Zahra se terġa’ tittella’ taħt id-direzzjoni ta’ John Suda.Din hija l-kummiedja klassika li mliet is-sala tat-Teatru Manoel meta ttellgħet għall-ewwel darba, fejn naraw l-avventuri (u l-ħmerijiet) ta’ surmast li qed jipprova jmexxi skola fil-limiti tiegħu filwaqt illi jipprova wkoll jittanta xortih fil-ħajja. Kummiedja għall-familja kollha kif jaf jagħti biss Trevor Zahra.

What the Papers Said:

Good Maltese Theatre

 Time and time again we find ourselves making assumptions about events or happenings and more often than not we end up feeling incongruous because of our unfounded prejudice. My latest faux pas was to think that Trevor Zahra’s Is-Surmast is reminiscent of the old traditional farcical plays, better known as ‘teatrin’, which were so popular in bygone days and still are, in some theatrical productions. I must confess that I approached my review assignment with trepidation as the genre I thought I was about to watch is not a favourite one. My main concern was that the recent criticism direct towards Unifaun choice of plays had contributed to the mellowing down of the theatre company, which has always sought to produce high standard theatre albeit at times controversial.

 All my prejudice disappeared within minutes of the start of the performance thanks to Trevor Zahra’s brilliant script, John Suda’s first-rate direction and the superb talent of all the actors involved.  The performance unfolding before my eyes was not the slapstick I had feared it would be but a delightful, even if at times slightly exaggerated, mirror of the Maltese society. Moreover, it was a joy to see the audience knowingly laugh at a number of phrases, quips and actions which undoubtedly reminded them of real people and everyday situations. Moreover, I came to the conclusion that Maltese can made fun and laugh at themselves as long as it’s done well and in good taste.

Trevor Zahra’s Is-Surmast was first written as a novel in 1973 and then performed on stage at the Manol Theatre for two consecutive years in 1994 and 1995. I have not read the book and did not attend the first two performances which somewhat put me in an advantageous position as I could criticise the latest production in its totality, without falling into the trap of comparing it to the older productions.

 The first thing that struck me was that the play did not feel dated and the dialogue was still relevant for today’s society. Situations, such as the water and electricity bill that came in the post and the gripes of the expenses of furbishing a house still hold true today. Furthermore, the zeal and devotion that Carmelo Ciantar (John Suda) demonstrates for the patron saint, Santa Filomena is parallel to the thousands of festa enthusiasts who can still be seen in all our towns and villages.

Suda’s performance of Carmelo Ciantar character as the confirmed bachelor, who secretly still longed for a relationship, was undoubtedly outstanding. He played with the audience’s emotions as a master puppeteer would his puppets and at times instigated a reaction to his sweeping chauvinistic comments. I was in an advantaged position to see Suda’s eyes swell with tears as he delivered his final heartfelt resignation speech which left the audience almost afraid to breath for fear of spoiling the moment. Michael Tabone’s Wigi il-Purtinar was both funny and endearing at the same time as he portrayed the school’s underdog whose wit always took the upper hand. Simon Curmi’s Is-Sur Aguis and Sean Buhagiar’s Is-Sur Baldacchino diametrically opposing characters added to the energy on stage. Both actors gave outstanding performances as Curmi’s Is-Sur Aguis constantly sought to pull Suda’s Carmelo Ciantar’s leg and Buhagiar’s Is-Sur Baldacchino unwittingly having to play along.

 The Inspector, played by Anthony Ellul was feared by all and seen as an unwelcoming intrusion to the school system which although diverse, was still conscious of upholding Christian and moral values perhaps more than academic achievement. Ellul’s character had the right dose of pomp which rendered it humorous yet humane. Marcel Zammit Marmara’s Dun Guzepp was credible and much needed by Carmelo Ciantar to clarify any dogmatic misgivings other teachers in the school might have had about Santa Filomena’s sainthood. Mary Rose Mallia portrayed a wonderful selfless Ms Buhagiar, the single teacher whose life revolves around her dedication to her pupils and looking after her mother, a striking contrast to the vivacious Giga (Miriam Fiteni) who Carmelo Ciantar hoped he would marry but ended up devastated as she married someone else. Young Jeremy Abdilla’s character Iz-Zrinzu was spot on as he played the mischievous boy who always ends up in the headmaster’s office because of some injury or mishap. I cannot conclude without mentioning Ninette Micallef’s splendid Saverin, the only character who did not have the audience roaring with laughter. On the contrary Micallef’s Saverin was heart-warming and profound as she sat in her perfect, clean sitting room contemplating her fate and her relationship with solitude while suppressing her true feelings in silent desperation so as to keep harmony in the home. Eventual true harmony is restored and Santa Filomena (Sarah Ellul) appears in a vision to Carmelo Ciantar auguring protection and better days.

After the performance I managed to speak to Adrian Buckle to try and gauge why Unifaun took on the production of Is-Surmast and his one and only comment was that all Unifaun wants to do is good theatre and Is-Surmast is good Maltese theatre. I indisputably concur and may more follow suit.


                                                                                                Pauline Fenech, The Sunday Times



 I had never been to any of Trevor Zahra’s plays before which I must confess here and now is my loss entirely. In fact I had very rarely been to plays in Maltese before. Plays in Maltese were, please note the ‘were’, not in my repertoire so to speak. To be quite frank I had been put off long ago by the translations of the Feydeau farces that used to be put up in illo tempore at the Manoel Theatre and had not gone out of my way till the Times asked me to cover Trevor Zahra’s Is-Surmast last Saturday.

I must say that I enjoyed every nano-second of it. I have been converted. The plot is tight, the characters are well-rounded and there is just the right amount of pathos and irony infused into this comedy to make it superbly effective. Trevor Zahra, who is surely Iz-Zrinzu, wrote the original novel in 1973 and unbeknown to me the character of Carmelo Ciantar, is-Surmast, has, since then become something of a cult figure for reasons that I can well understand. Carmelo Ciantar is an eccentric. He is a Maltese eccentric to boot.  ; a confirmed bachelor who is looked after hand and foot by his subservient sister Saverin whom he dominates, sweetly, but dominates all the same. He is headmaster but is more concerned about his pupils’ spiritual welfare rather than their academic achievements and he is passionately devoted to Santa Philomena, the patron saint of the place, whose existence was in question.

I recall the removal of St Catherine of Alexandria and St George from the Saints’ Calendar very well. I was a child at the time and Censa, who was nanna’s live in cook, was from Zejtun and she was terribly upset about it to the extent that I had never actually experienced in my life. Carmelo Ciantar’s deep and fanatical support of the cult of Santa Philomena brought back memories that were real issues at the time and to some extent still are. It was like something straight out of Guareschi’s Don Camillo. That was the most colourful of Is-Surmast’s eccentricities. I will not forget that wonderful scene when Ciantar, in full ecclesiastical gear and bearing the banner with the legend “VIVA SANTA FILOMENA” is surprised in the act by the school inspector.

John Suda was a splendiferous Carmelo Ciantar; larger than life but never overdone. We have all met Carmelo Ciantar clones in our lives. He was deeply convincing and was Ciantar with every atom of his being.  The final farewell speech was unforgettable. It was moving. The huge audience was spellbound. Ciantar’s sidekicks, Messers Agius and Baldacchino played by Simon Curmi and Sean Buhagiar were perfect character studies. Agius’s brashness contrasted with Baldacchino’s timidity making them perfect foils for the Ciantar character. Michael Tabone’s Wigi was a dream of a part; a cameo which he played with a twist of wryness all of his own. Anthony Ellul’s school inspector was played with a comic pomposity that verged on the ridiculous but was wholly convincing at the same time as the antithesis of Ciantar’s character.  I could not help being tremendously impressed by Ninette Micallef’s Saverin. Her soliloquy about the emptiness of her life brought me close to tears.

I loved the play. I was fascinated by the dialogue. The direction was flawless. I was moved by those snatches of opera that were cleverly inserted without being obtrusive especially Bellini’s Casta Diva. The revolving stage set was clever. The dirt and untidiness of Ciantar’s study with the frying pan hanging on the wall and the contrasting spic and span home kept beautifully by Saverin were perfect reproductions down to the last T of what one would have imagined a 1970s Maltese anachronism of a headmaster’s to be and what a middle class sallott with everything placed ‘just so’ was all about.

Trevor Zahra is a wonderful author and playwright. His way with words is riveting along with his mastery of contemporary Maltese devoid of the bastardisations that are debasing our language by the day. It was a delight to listen to. Above all it was the deft depictions of the various characters that impressed me; even the minor ones like, Giga, Miss Buhagiar and Dun Guzepp all made up a wonderful vignette of Maltese life of yesteryear and I am sure there are many Zrinzus around, now of my vintage, who fondly remember this vanished breed of educators who selflessly dedicated their lives to produce persons of backbone and principle. They may have not been overly academic but they knew and appreciated what life is all about.


Kenneth Zammit Tabona, The Weekender, The Times

pictures by Joseph A. Borg