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Il-Ħajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Ġenoveffa
Author: Trevor Zahra
Direction and Adaptation: Marcelle Teuma
Cast: Maria Buckle, Marta Vella, Chris Galea, Laura Best, David Bonnici
Dates: 26, 27 October, 1, 2, 3 November 2013
Venue: Sir Temi Zammit Hall, Tal-Qroqq
Summary: Nanna Genoveffa was never a conventional woman. This is her story; her childhood, her schooldays, falling in love, finding her soulmate, World War II, falling in love again and mourning her husband. A wonderful tale based on Trevor Zahra's best selling novel by the same name.
What the papers said:
The Salacious Secrets of a Grinding Granny
For an island culture that is still very traditional in its outlook, especially towards all matters relating to sex and sexuality, we’re finally beginning to ease up and refraining from blushing a deep red when we hear or happen to discuss any personal sensual act more intimate than holding hands. Trevor Zahra’s popular novella, “Il-Hajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Genoveffa” is proof enough of our changing mentality and takes a humorous look at the sexual curiosity and proclivities of a seemingly respectable woman from a good family throughout her life. Sensitively and cleverly adapted for the stage by Marcelle Teuma, Unifaun Theatre’s production of “Il-Hajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Genoveffa” debuted last weekend at Sir Temi Zammit Hall at the University of Malta to a packed audience.
Ms Teuma, who also directed the piece did a great job in selecting the best scenes from the book and staging them in chronological succession to run the entirely of Genoveffa’s life from her late childhood and early teenage years right through to her old age. What made it an excellent adaptation was its excellent visual styling, with backstage crew and their walk-ons doing a great job in the smooth running of the show as the multiple scenes transitioned into each other. The piece was performed in direct narrative with short acted scenes in between. This approach might not have been as effective had it not been for the impeccable timing of the cast. As it was, the rather long, two-act performance kept a brisk, lively pace from start to finish and kept the piece from weighing down the audience. With choreography and music selection by Laura Best and David Bonnici; Ms Teuma chose to keep the passionate dance of the tango as the play’s leitmotif, featuring it in many of the transitions between the scenes as well as being central to some of the characters’ interpersonal struggles in certain scenes. A cleverly stylised set designed by Romualdo Moretti, which facilitated scene changes and styling from the 1920s till the 1960s, was complimented by Chris Gatt’s lighting design and made for strong visual impact in its simplicity.
Provoking much hilarity given its salacious content, especially considering its setting in the 30s, 40s and 50s; the play exposed a naughty, playful side to hidden Maltese sexual practises, commenting along the way in Zahra’s inimitably humorous yet accurate descriptions and criticisms of the way we do (or don’t do) things. The main cast of three relied on their abilities to double and play multiple characters, changing from one to another with commendable on-stage alacrity. Marta Vella and Maria Buckle both played Genoveffa at various stages in her life, as well as her two aunts, Faustina and Gemma and several other characters. Christian Galea introduced the play as Genoveffa’s grandson, and then went on to play her various suitors, her husband Zanzu as well as minor characters. The meta-dramatic effect that the show also provided was that the actors were aware of their position as actors and at times made deliberate hints at this, such as the running gag about Mr Galea’s height, which was meant to change according to the character he was playing, hence his habit of carrying a small stool with him at all times. Mr Galea demonstrated much skill, not simply by changing tone and demeanour but also thanks to his perfect comic timing and excellent use of facial expression which proves that one well-placed glance can make a whole lot of difference.
Ms Vella’s younger Genoveffa was raunchy and cheeky in just the right measure, while her Zija Faustina was appropriately loving, meddlesome and old-school oblivious to the goings on under her nose during the rosary and games of innocuous dominoes as Ms Buckle’s Genoveffa and Mr Galea’s Zanzu flirted outrageously, played dangerously intimate games and got very close to making the beast with two backs. Ms Buckle also played Genoveffa’s childhood friend, the worldly Maggie Jones – a fountain of sexual information to Ms Vella’s naïve but hungrily curious Genoveffa in the playground, when a explanation about the various states of the male anatomy was interrupted by a nun (Mr Galea), who gave the two young ladies a thorough telling off before surreptitiously picking up the cucumber which Maggie had been using in her demonstration. In several other scenes Ms Buckle’s versatility was again evident in her interpretation of Zija Gemma, especially when she tries to explain to a crafty Genoveffa the importance and practicalities of her marital duties in the bedroom, as the wiley young Genoveffa leads her on. There were several scenes which had the audience in fits, such as Genoveffa and her husband Zanzu being caught “in flagrante” by their four year old son Giovanni, who then proceeded to describe what he saw in the most minute of details to their entire family and guests over Christmas dinner; or her confession scene with a randy priest. Others were poignant: from forbidden attraction in a war shelter during an air raid, to a lesbian declaration of love and coping with the death of a loved one.
One thing is certain: that the perfect poise and clarity of diction, the timing and dynamic between these three actors made for an extremely slick and enjoyable performance. Their skill and versatility enriched an already highly entertaining show, which also had another crucial factor: the correct handling of a script which pushed the boundaries but kept it artistic, making “Il-Hajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Genoveffa” a must-see show.
-Andre Delicata, The Times, 30/10/13
Bringing Nanna Genoveffa to the Stage
This weekend is the final theatrical run of Trevor Zahra’s best-selling naughty book, Il-Ħajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Ġenoveffa. I had the pleasure of meeting director Marcelle Teuma for a chat and, subsequently, of viewing a dress rehearsal.
Il-Ħajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Ġenoveffa (also sold in English as The Secret Life of Grandma Ġenoveffa, translated by Rose Marie Caruana) won the second prize at the 2008 National Book Awards. It is the fictional diary of a Maltese woman born in the 1920s. Being at times naughty and at others touching, it brings up themes such as homosexuality, marital infidelity and widowhood. What sets it apart is its sensitive, respectful and non-judgemental treatment of such subjects.
We are presented with characters, what they go through, their longings, their hopes and their passions… and we watch. We reflect.
“From the start, Trevor and I agreed not to have it scripted”, Marcelle tells me.
I ask her why.
“If it were scripted, it would have to be explicit, whereas if one had to keep the narrative as storytelling, then one can be more suggestive. In the book Trevor is rather suggestive, even at his explicit moments. When reading, all you have is the written word. That sparks your imagination. You give those words life through the act of imagination. But, ultimately, it’s all words.”
“I want to be suggestive to people and spark their imagination the way Trevor sparked mine. I do not want to show what Trevor doesn’t show. For that, I try to use suggestive theatrical language. The actors are delivering what Trevor is delivering, but within a theatrical framework.”
Setting the scene
Marcelle offers us a series of photographs – moving pictures; postcards. I was reminded of old black and white photos, handcoloured. There is something about those photos… the flatness of the colours, perhaps, almost water-colour or pastel. The visual stimulus of the performance is akin to the visual stimulus given by such pictures. Perhaps it lies in the fact that most of the narration happens in an era handed down to us in hand-coloured photographs.
The set design is rather minimalist; the props symbolic as well as functional, such as when a statue of St Michael – played by Laura Best – gesticulates in scorn or approval at Ġenoveffa’s adventures.
Worth noting are the tango interludes. Laura Best and David Bonnici, who are also responsible for choreography, are fantastic dancers. There is nothing flashy about their moves: no moonwalking, no tossing in the air, no impossible splits. We get to see two people, sometimes more, dancing tango. Tango is always beautiful to watch and these two are excellent at it… which brings me to the tango soundtrack.
Those who have yet to watch the performance may want to jump here and skip the next bit.
The music to the war shelter scene is the immensely sublime Oblivion by tango great Astor Piazzolla. It is an absolutely heartbreaking scene thanks to the choice of music and Chris Galea’s and Maria Buckle’s stunning performances. My only contention is that, perhaps, a selection of old Maltese records would have set the scene firmly where it belongs, culturally and historically. I tend to think that Andrew Alamango’s Malta’s Lost Voices would have found a natural home in Ġenoveffa. Yet, the chosen tracks work well. I imagine the tango was used to give a sense of timelessness, or, rather, to set us on a by-gone, nostalgic tone.
All three main actors are good and all have no fixed role. Ġenoveffa and the other characters are played by one actor in one scene and by another the next.
Marcelle explains: “I see in Ġenoveffa a universal character. Physical appearance is not that important – she could be tall, short, fat, slim; what goes through her mind and her life – and, indeed, the other characters – could be going through anybody’s and that is what I wanted to emphasise by having different actors swapping characters.”
Marta Vella carries the characters well, particularly Ġenoveffa’s aunt, Faustina. Chris Galea charms the crowd, weaving in and out of male characters. He too has a scene where he plays Ġenoveffa. He deftly manages to play the character with thought and dignity and steers clear of what could easily degenerate into a farce. Maria Buckle deserves special mention. She holds the audience captive, delivering her lines flawlessly and convincingly, always well-timed.
The book vs the theatrical adaptation
So how is the theatrical experience different to reading the book, I ask Marcelle?
“Reading the book is a solitary experience. You laugh on your own. At a theatrical performance there is the social side of being part of an audience, having people reacting along with you. You get carried away by sharing the experience with others.”
There is also a spectacular element – the scenery changes all the time, the actors’ use of timing, the use of lights, of costumes; all are elements that the book doesn’t have.
Produced by Unifaun Productions, the performance clocks in at three hours, split into two acts. Although it would be Philistine to quantify art in terms of a performance’s duration, the two acts are well-paced and grab your attention for their entire duration.
I am sure you will enjoy this fictitious, yet at the same time factual, retelling of a human life that is Ġenoveffa. As Marcelle points out, it could be anybody’s secret life, anybody’s roaming, wandering spirit. It could be anybody who survives the highs and lows of life and still clutches tight his or her zest for it.
-Adrian Camilleri, The Sunday Circle, 1/11/13
A COMICAL SEXUAL JOURNEY
Trevor Zahra has long been the most widely read author of fiction in Maltese, and his Il-Hajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Genoveffa has had a huge readership. This rumbustious novel goes beyond all other Maltese novels known to me in its frank treatment of sex, but it is also very broadly comical whilst illustrating Zahra's psychological perspicacity most of the time.
This novel has now been dramatised by Marcelle Theuma, who has also directed it it for Unifaun at Sir Temi Zammit Hall, University of Malta. She was a good choice for she has now probably become the most imaginative stage director in this country. Earlier this year she showed in her direction of Clare Azzopardi's "In-Nisa Maltin jafu kif" that, like Albert Marshall and Mario Azzopardi, she is very interested in exploring elements of traditional teatrin. These elements, together with her interest in symbolism and her readiness to juxtapose the comic and the sentimental, makes this production, despite its unwieldiness and excessive length, a very entertaining and often surprising one. Watching this production soon after watching Agatha Christie desiccated "The Mousetrap" the pre vious week was a relief. Zahra and Theuma between them have produced a large, episodic work that relishes not just doubles entendres but an abundance of explicit language and situations which I sometimes found overpowering, whereas most of the others in the audience just wanted more and more.
The play is all about Genoveffa, a woman who has had a long and very active love life which she has written up in a manuscript that comes to light after her death. We find out, sometimes in considerable detail - detail that often had the large audience in a roar - her development, fuelled by her insatiable curiosity, as she gets information from, and some rudimentary experience with, other girls at school, and later with a male cousin. Her meeting, as a teenager, with Zanzu, a social inferior and much older but sexually most attractive to her, speeds up her desire for sexual activity, but like most girls in the Twenties, her desire is not truly fulfilled until she marries the man. Zanzu dies when she is still forty and still very eager for new experiences, but the day comes when the memory of Zanzu troubles her again. Here, however, Zahra provides a beautifully written final scene, set in a cemetery, where Genoveffa speaks in great honesty to the dead Zanzu, and to herself.
Zahra has wisely allowed Theuma to make changes in his script (which, however, is used abundantly in this stage version) so as to make the piece change from narrative to theatrical. Zahra's verbal bawdry remains almost untouched, but the sexual activity has sometimes been greatly modified. The best example I can think of is the notorious and wickedly comic scene of Genoveffa's first night of marriage with Zanzu which is played by Genoveffa alone as the excited narrator while the actor playing Zanzu appears, a touch of brilliant comicality, as an image of the head of the Baptist whose grimness is responsible for Zanzu's initial impotence in this scene.
Of the many other strikingly imaginative touches, the scene in which the now widowed Genoveffa introduces us to the young men who were her short-lived lovers is played with comical vividness using a large flat with painted but headless figures of three men with the splendid Chris Galea poking his head through each aperture, showing us the superficial differences of the three but also their basic likeness. Galea also plays Zanzu throughout. Theuma is even more imaginative in the scene (one which, I think, could most easily have been omitted from the stage version) in which Zanzu's lesbian sister makes a pass at the horrified Genoveffa on the eve of her wedding. The scene is played below a (live) statue of an androgynous looking Archangel Michael, played mischievously by Laura Best, who changes from pretended shock to camp satisfaction as the scene develops.
Romualdo Moretti's elegantly designed and easily changeable set makes the constantly moving scenes very possible, and the quick changes become fun in themselves as Laura Best and David Bonnici dance a series of tangos by the great Astor Piazzolla or neatly garbed maids set and dust the props for the next scene.
Theuma's most cutting-edge device is to make the central character, Genoveffa, played by three players, one of them a man, her stated aim being to present different facets of what will probably remain one of contemporary Maltese fiction's (and theatre's) most memorable characters. Marta Vella, whom I have seen before but who here gives what is easily her most accomplished performance, is the key Genoveffa, the eminently sensual woman much of whose life has been governed by her strong sexual desires. Her playing of the first night scene is richly comical and, despite the very favourable audience, she never overdid even the most explicit lines. Her performance as a sensualist is very consistent, but when at the end she comes to terms with the spirit of Zanzu and with herself, she is impressively subtle. This scene brings this play, in which sexuality is at the very core, to an unexpectedly quiet, and indeed moving, close.
Maria Buckle plays a more internal Genoveffa, the person who reflects on what she does though she never disapproves of it. Her Genoveffa becomes more important as the play develops, particularly in act two. Her restrained comicality is very obvious in a scene that is becoming de rigueur in contemporary Maltese theatre: one set in a confessional. Theuma has already tried this in "In-nisa maltin jafu kif". In this case the confessor is one of the once notorious priests who tries to wheedle out of his penitents as many sexual details as he can. Chris Galea squeezes out of this nauseating practice a good deal of broad comedy, and it is thus one of the most surprising moments of the production when he suddenly appears garbed as Genoveffa whilst Buckle becomes a slimly attractive priest in a cassock. Theuma loves to loose a barbed dart against clerics and church whenever she can.
Buckle showed us her ability to play serious scenes in the scene of Zanzu's death, a scene to which Theuma devotes much care; it comes as a shock after the prevailing comedy of much that has gone before.
As the third Genoveffa, Galea makes us see the character as the woman who has begun to lose interest in the sexuality of her marriage and, after Zanzu's death, becomes akin to men in her constant hunting for new sexual partners. I think Theuma has gone over the top with this trinity of Genoveffa figures, but was surprised at the way in which the boisterous audience settled down quietly as it tried to make sense of this male Genoveffa figure. As Zanzu and other male figures, mostly funny, Galea also does very well. He, Vella and Buckle are a remarkably versatile trio who between themselves people the stage with many other striking characters.
Love it or hate it, this is truly Maltese theatre. It has certainly its excesses, but it shows it can also be sophisticated when it is the work of someone like Theuma. When authors and directors stop feeling relieved that stage censorship is a thing of the past, they will probably resist the temptation to pull all the stops much of the time.
Paul Xuereb, The Sunday Times, 3/11/13
IL-HAJJA SESSWALI SIGRIETA TAN-NANNA
Ta’ min? Tan-Nanna Genoveffa li kiteb dwarha Trevor Zahra u li rajnieha anke fuq il-palk tat-Teatru Temi Zammit fl-Universita ta’ Malta fl-ahhar tmiem il-gimgha ta’ Ottubru u l-bidu ta’ Novembru. Ghal din il-kummiedja li kienet prodotta mill-Kumpanija Unifaun it-Teatru dejjem kien mimli u din il-konkorrenza turi tliet affarijiet. L-ewwel li n-nies iridu xoghlijiet bil-Malti, it-tieni li jridu jidhqu u t-tielet li m’ghadhomx jiskruplaw anke jekk xi kliem u espressjonijiet setghu joffendu. Jien nemmen li l-bniedem dejjem kien l-istess. It-Taljani ighidu li m’hemm xejn gdid taht il-kappa tax-xemx u hekk hu . Forsi fi zminijiet ohra, il-prattika, l-uzanzi u l-ambjent kienu differenti milli huma llum imma bazikament il-bniedem dejjem baqa’ bniedem, bl-istess emozzjonijiet, xewqat u htigijiet sew jekk kien ighix fil-passat, illum jew fil-futur.
Fost suggetti li fl-era vittorjana kienu meqjusa bhala taboo nsibu s-sess. Jien nemmen li minkejja li kien ipprojbit li ssemmiegh (iktar u iktar li tipprattikah fid-deher u fil-miftuh) xorta baqa’ jigi pprattikat u r-rizultat jidher fil-popolazzjoni dinjija li baqghet tikber u tikber minkejja gwerer, pestilenzi, guh u mard. Kieku ahna m’ahniex hawn, mhux hekk?
In-nanna li pprezentalna Trevor, kittieb b’pinna facli li jaf jolqot ezatt il-polz tal-poplu, kienet mara li tghallmet minn kull okkazzjoni li sabet ma’ wiccha. Ma kinetx stupida, anzi! Kienet thoss il-gibdiet naturali li kull zaghzugh/a jhoss u ma qaghdetx tinheba wara skrupli vojta. Ta’ zaqqha f’fommha, insomma. Minn meta kienet ghadha ckejkna kienet ghall-ewwel tinhasad imma mbaghad taddatta skont il-htiega. Meta kibret , minkejja li guvintur li rieduha qatt ma naqsu , iggennet wara Zanzu, bniedem ta’ klassi inferjuri minn taghha u ikbar minnha qatigh. Riditu u baqghet baqghet sa ma zzewgitu. L-ewwel lejl kif deskritt minn Genoveffa kien favoluz – ghalkemm Zanzu beda jiskrupla minn ras San Gwann u kwadri ohra tal-qaddisin li setghu isegwu dak li kien ghaddej. Meta bdew gejjin it-tfal, hi u zewgha jiddeciedu li ma riedux aktar ulied u ghalhekk Genoveffa hasset il-htiega li tmur tqerr. Meta pprovat tfiehem lis-sacerdot billi tuza’ xbieghet ta’ fortizzi u kanun ‘ u wara li l-qassis dam jistaqsiha hafna dettalji zejda, ma felhitx izjed u b’lehen oghli kellmitu kif kellha tkellmu. Hawn id-direttrici brava Marcelle Teuma holqot “colpo di scena “ meta l-qassis johrog mibdul f’Genoveffa waqt li hi tohrog mill-konfessinarju liebsa tal-qassis. Nahseb li kull min kien fit-teatru jiftakqr il-hafna dettalji li l-qassisin kienu jsaqsu lin-nisa u tfajliet Fil-fatt kien hawn joke li ili li nsejtha!!
Meta Zanzu miet ta’ 40 sena biss, Genoveffa ma damitx ma bdiet thoss id-dwejjaq tas-solitudni . Hawnhekk, partikolarment fl-ahhar xena , Genoveffa, permezz tal-kitba ta’ Zahra tisserja . U maghha sserjat l-udjenza li kienet ilha ssegwi d-dramm. (ix-xoghol seta’ kien iqsar) sinjal iehor pozittiv ta’ sensitivita tal-udjenza Maltija li dahqet u xxalat meta kien hemm il-komicita izda li sserjat meta kien hemm il-htiega. Prosit kbir tmur ghad-direttrici li harget dawn l-estremi mhux biss minghand l-atturi izda anke mill-udjenza. Jien inqis lil din id-direttur bhala wahda mill-aqwa li ghandna, avventuruza, ma tiddejjaqx twassal xoghlijiet imqarba u mhux tas-soltu. Nghidilha prosit ukoll ghal kif saru t-tibdiliet bejn xena u ohra waqt li nghid bravi lill-atturi specjalment lil Martha Vella,lil Maria Buckle, Laura Best, David Bonnici u lil Christian Galea li nghaqad ma’ Marta u Maria biex ifisser il-karattru ta’ Genoveffa., idea genjali ta’ Marcelle li kellha tliet atturi differenti biex iwasslu lin-nanna ghand l-udjenza. L-atturi setghu waqghu fil-baxx anke minhabba certu kliem u azzjonijiet. Imma zammew il-valur tax-xoghol f’livelli gholjin waqt li taw l-ahjar taghhom.
Kienet serata li pprovdiet hafna mumenti ta’ dahq izda anke li geghlitna nahsbu fuq tant aspetti li hafna minnha (jekk mhux kulhadd ) nahsbu fuqu.
Joyce Guillaumier, It-Torca, 17/11/13
pictures by Joseph A. Borg