Teatru Malta’s project is a much needed pedagogical interlude to our educational system, and an exciting corrective to the virtual absence of an important discussion around the themes of sex and sexuality among the younger demographic of Maltese society.
by Maria Theuma
Image: Performance Poster (detail)
For this year’s edition of ŻiguŻajg International Arts Festival for Children & Young People, Teatru Malta is presenting a DIY theatre performance, Alice in Wonderless Land/Alice fl-Art Bla Meravilji, which is currently available to schools on demand. Devised and directed by Sean Buhagiar, the production is based on the play Alice Nel Paese Senza Meraviglie, penned by the Italian theatre actress, playwright and political activist Franca Rame together with her husband, Nobel Laureate playwright Dario Fo, in 1976.
As the title indicates, Rame’s play is itself inspired by the 1865 novel by Lewis Carroll, which famously tells of a young girl named Alice, who falls through a rabbit hole into an underground fantasy world populated by peculiar, anthropomorphic creatures.
Rame’s play presents Alice as an allegorical cipher, exactly as Carroll might have seen her, but also in contemporary times as a brand of ‘girl’. It draws into focus not only the contours and force of Carroll’s tale but also harnesses the authority of the original text to expose the ways in which the girl presents herself as a cultural and ideological problem — her body a paradoxical locus of sex and its absence; a fecundity to be feared, shamed, and disciplined.
In a thirty-minute monologue, translated specifically for this event by Simon Bartolo into English and Simone and Marco Galea into Maltese, Rame incisively tackles the societal pathologisation of Alice, be it in her coquettishness, frustration or sadness. Here, Alice’s search for answers amidst a world of nonsense is destined to remain in a constant state of failure, conditioned by the ominous, predatory, and lewd behaviour of the figures that populate Wonderless Land. Understood in its literal sense, the monologue, performed by Alice, is one long screed against the feigned happiness and anxious vacuity of adolescent girls and youthful women in the West. It offers a relentless depiction of the fully weaponised consumerist body of the girl.
The monologue, performed by Alice, is one long screed against the feigned happiness and anxious vacuity of adolescent girls and youthful women in the West. It offers a relentless depiction of the fully weaponised consumerist body of the girl.
Of course, Teatru Malta are no strangers to the task of handling provocative material with responsibility and nuance. Their penchant for bringing critical inquiry and ethically loaded themes to a young local audience, as could be witnessed for instance in their production of Larinġa Mekkanika (A Clockwork Orange) during last year’s edition of ŻiguŻajg, is truly commendable. Tailored for pandemic times, Alice in Wonderless Land may be Teatru Malta’s most ambitious project to date. Designed to be experienced in a classroom setting by students aged fourteen and over, it manages to be considerably more explicit about its political positions than their previous work.
Presented in a box, the main components of the performance are quite straightforward: a USB drive, two sets of cards sporting stage directions that are to be distributed to the participating audience, a set of instructions for setting up the performance, and a doll, namely Alice. Resource packs are also available online, with guidelines and activities designed to support both educators and students throughout their experience. During the performance, an adult is required to take on the role of doll-bearer, standing in front of a screen on which a series of audiovisuals (found on the USB drive) are projected.
Teatru Malta’s DIY approach is meant to evoke the way we communicate and consume media and images today. The fragments mimic the self-fashioning of the ‘Alice’ girl. On screen, a haphazard, composite sketch of her appearance adds up. The visuals are deliberately messy and fragmentary: say, filmic cuts of past cinematic adaptations of Carroll’s tale are interspersed with photographic images of various well-known girls from the twentieth century, from Virginia Woolf to Sylvia Plath to Simone de Beauvoir.
As the play progresses, Alice is exposed in her hegemonic frivolity, as a self-producing commodity, until she ultimately discards her selfhood in order to replace it with a totally manufactured body: that of the doll. The narration, which takes the form of a single, uninterrupted monologue, is voiced by Mariele Żammit, both in its English and Maltese versions. Żammit is remarkable, her voice is endowed with a range of stylistic postures that are in turns wry, brutal, sorrowful.
As the play progresses, Alice is exposed in her hegemonic frivolity, as a self-producing commodity, until she ultimately discards her selfhood in order to replace it with a totally manufactured body: that of the doll.
Rame’s prose is incisive and poetic, precise and web-like, elegiac of Alice’s youth. This kind of literary experimentation often sacrifices baseline clarity, not to mention plot, but Żammit manages to make her Alice sound beguilingly hip, plain-spoken and surprisingly, harrowingly, matter of fact — making the audience, in turn, vacillate between feeling at times such tenderness and at other times such irritation towards her.
Throughout, the girl is a figurative entity, an unflattering stereotype that we recognise as a consumerist type, both an exponent of and metaphor for the commodification of social life. In this sense, the play becomes a meditation on many things: consumerism, vanity, desire, alienation, how gender plays into all of this. Overall, here we find little more than a collage made of the clichés that flit through most of pop and digital cultures surrounding the generation of Teatru Malta’s target audience.
However, on closer examination, this amassing of images also raises some critical questions, opening up further perspectives on what they may mean about the ever-changing constructions and shifting subjectivities of girlhood. Can that girlhood be mobilised to assess the social discourses that define, restrict, engage, and commodify girls’ bodies?
Alice in (Wonderless?) Malta
Although explicitly gendered as female, Teatru Malta’s Alice is less about a character than a condition, namely that of being a girl, particularly in Malta, where it seems our educational institutions haven’t yet really grasped what’s happening or what’s at stake in this regard. Teatru Malta’s project is a much needed pedagogical interlude to our educational system (as the resource pack indicates, its themes are in line with the learning outcomes in the PSCD syllabi of years 9, 10, 11), and an exciting corrective to the virtual absence of an important discussion around the themes of sex and sexuality among the younger demographic of Maltese society.
Sitting in my socially-isolated seat, watching the performance during a press preview event one Saturday morning, I feel nervous, which is to say I feel my sense of writerly duty and my frustration collide head-on. Knowing that this performance’s target audience will be primarily girls, should I start my review with an admission of my biases — biases which are supplemented by my own experience and assumptions as a person in a visibly female somatic form? How do I go about watching this with the express purpose of locating — and therefore retrospectively validating — my own girlhood? Do I put myself in the shoes of my past fourteen-year-old self, imagining her as young, fresh, not fully formed, forging ahead, clumsy and naïve? What about the precarious position of being the girl I was then, coming of age in Malta of the aughts? As opposed to what? The girl I am now?
The term ‘girl’ has always been somewhat contested. There’s an assortment of mercurial origin stories that account for her coming into being. Definitions can be diverse and transient.
There are official age designations, variable and overlapping usages of the term ‘girl’, according to one’s politics and positioning. The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following slippery definition: “a. A young or relatively young woman/b. A woman of any age. An (often derogatory) reference to women with respect to their occupation or social status./c. A female child. The counterpart of boy. Freq. also with prefixed defining adjectives baby, little, young, etc.”.
Critical girlhood studies, on the other hand, problematise all the assumptions couched under the term, expose them to scrutiny, and address their politics, all the while maintaining the complexities of identity that the contested label appropriately reflects. ‘‘There is nothing essential about girlhood; it is always produced and negotiated (by us all, but especially by girls) in particular historical and political moments”, Christine Griffin, Professor of Psychology at Bath University, asserts. The politics of girlhood are thus always collectively produced and reproduced, always shifting, neither static nor linear. In such cases, the term ‘girl’ is meant to refer to a formatted personality, to be negotiated, often in accordance with the conditions offered by the apparatuses of consumer capitalism, into which the idealisation of youth and femininity are encoded.
Our Alice fits this description. She is desired because she has value, she has value because she is desired — this is the tautology of commodities we all found ourselves in as girls.
Our Alice fits this description. She is desired because she has value, she has value because she is desired — this is the tautology of commodities we all found ourselves in as girls. And thus, she is treated accordingly throughout the play, finding herself subjected to the voice of an older woman that shames her for her sexual urges, the lewd behaviour of the pig and the monkey, the molestation she undergoes at the hands of the rabbit, the consumerist worth she is endowed with by the knight.
Georges Bataille writes in Eroticism that degradation “compliments eroticism which heightens the value of the object of desire”. On the subject of a degradation that transforms the girl into an object that can be owned, radical feminist Shulamith Firestone insists that “one does not have to bother actually degrading one’s sex object; […] her attributes, by social definition, already render her degraded”. It should thus be deemed fit that Alice is, at the end of the play, sold to a factory where she’s dismembered and rebuilt as a doll. Not only does Alice consume, she herself would rather become a commodity than passively suffer a culture’s tyranny. It’s a kind of sabotage to her notion of self, yet almost impossible to refuse. In the end, the girl feels worthwhile, now that she has worth, whether or not it comes at her expense.
There’s something here to be said about the way the image of something, in this case the doll that stands in for the girl, is just as real as the thing itself, in a way that both elevates the girl’s craft and creates unfair, violent repercussions. It exposes the mechanism behind what we see as we’re seeing it. The play’s pedagogical potential lies in how it lays bare the devices in theatre-making, in how a representation comes to be itself, just as the labour of femininity can show us — through compliance, sadness, poetry — what material conditions uphold the vision of the girl that appears before us. “We’re making art here”, Alice (or one of the many voices that her monologue embodies) professes at one point.
I admit I don’t find such a claim a comforting prospect. In their adaptation, Teatru Malta invite us into Alice’s life as a voyeur, but we finish watching the play with the feeling that she’s our own creation. Part of Alice’s problem as a doll is the problem of all artefacts as commodities: the problem of what comes after their creation. Shame for the doll doesn’t come from being bought, but rather from not being bought. The fact of it remains that the conditions for the creation of this particular girl required so many violations, so many tragedies, so many inappropriate appropriations. Alice watches, is watched. She consumes, is consumed; but this story isn’t easily consumable. It doesn’t feel like art.
Part of Alice’s problem as a doll is the problem of all artefacts as commodities: the problem of what comes after their creation. Shame for the doll doesn’t come from being bought, but rather from not being bought.
Ultimately, the message seems to be that we want to ogle, and we also want to condemn. With this project, Teatru Malta engages in a discourse that has a long tradition in Western societies and is thus able to tap into an echoing concern about the vulnerability of girls and the potential dangers they face growing up. Their concern is, justifiably, a local spaciousness that’s dotted with heavy-handed reference to and, one might say, conspicuous dissatisfaction with things as they currently stand.
There’s something vaguely embarrassing about the contemporaneity of this situation, about Teatru Malta’s insistence on wading into the obvious (the world is an underground of horrors for girls), their willingness to indulge cliché (the girl is a doll). Here nothing is subtle but, then again, neither are the serious shortcomings that mark Maltese society’s treatment of its girls, evident everywhere — from this country’s problematic approach to sexual and reproductive health and rights to the fact that, as the statistics that appear at the end of Alice in Wonderless Land tell us, “47% of people in Malta think women make up or exaggerate abuse or rape claims”. Violence against girls occurs daily, in the most intimate of spaces. Teatru Malta’s earnestness is necessary.
“When he is looking forward/He is/Looking for her/The shadow of a woman”, songstress Alexandra Alden sings, as the closing credits roll on screen. Alden’s song, titled ‘Shadow of a Woman’, was commissioned by Teatru Malta specifically for this project, and it defines one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the entire experience. Here, Alice is an unknown presence, shadowing the knight’s way forward, until he realises that she’s the body ahead on the path. Possibly, us girls have been following these men from in front all along.
To write from the perspective of my girlhood is an experiment in decentralised focus, affection, hearsay, non-linear girl-history. Perhaps it’s just as well that I find myself unable to do it. After all, in the play, Alice teems with inarticulate dissatisfaction, she’s chronically numb, struck sick by the world. More than anything, the play is a meditation on the girl’s voice, on speaking into the impossibility of speaking.
I admit that there’s still an anxiety I feel, even as I try to bring this review to a close. My girlhood smears so easily, and I can’t tell if that makes it more inclined to the universal or less so. Part of what’s painful about such an exercise is that so much of the patriarchal harm I experienced (and witnessed my loved ones experience) as a fourteen-year-old can’t ever be undone and, in that sense, this play becomes, in my eyes, a study of what art can change, and, most importantly, what it can’t. When it comes to my own girlhood, all it offers is an impossible revolution.
What allegiance do we owe to our present-day young girls, to make sure they’ll never have to experience that same devastating realisation? On these islands, the girl blurs under her sign — a glimmering cipher at the far end of the rabbit hole. Our Alices are still falling, and we stand by as they do.