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  • Writer's pictureRoger Tirazona

Excommunicated by the Excommunicated

Updated: May 12, 2023

Teatru Malta, director and writer Victor Jacono as well as co-writer and music composer Kris Spiteri, were gracious enough to trust me with the role of Bishop Pietru Pace in "Il-Qfil u l-Ħelsien Skont Manwel Dimech", an original musical with promenade performance in the old British Military Prison in Kordin, in Maltese (with some parts in English) about the Maltese philosopher, writer, poet, teacher and luminary political thinker in the title.

As I am writing this blog, we are already in our run of shows after having completed an intensive rehearsal process. These shows will run till the 13th of December and I suggest you get tickets fast from here, as they are limited.

The urgency to watch this show is the subject matter of Manwel Dimech, who was expunged for possibly a variety of reasons, from our collective memory and our education. I will not get into it here as I cannot explain it better than James Debono for MaltaToday in this article.

This is possibly the first ecclesiastical role that I had to bring to life and being known as a Humanist (ex-chairperson of the Malta Humanist Association no less), everyone saw the strong irony of it and we all joked about it. But there is this little something called "acting" and with people of a certain level of intelligence and who have no agenda, I did not really need to specify that I was not really a bishop, just like others needed to specify that they weren't really Nazis for wearing Nazi costumes in a play... It was not too difficult to fill the shoes of a cleric, when you yourself are comfortable with the clergy. I am not anti-clerical, in the sense that I do not dislike the clergy, after all I spent 9 of my formative years in a church school and studied with the faculty of theology for a while. I am simply not comfortable with the institution they represent and their doctrine. In the end they are human too - and since they are, they can be portrayed by other humans. Some of the most intelligent people I met at university were part of the faculty of Theology in fact. It is however a great pity that a lot of the good that is happening in those ivory towers rarely ever makes it to the pulpits of churches, let alone to their pews.

I am however a person who was baptised and raised a Catholic but have become a publicly known apostate. The reasons why are for another discussion and perhaps another blog, but the point is that I am excommunicated from the Catholic Church. The Church has an excommunication by default for apostates, in other words, people who completely reject the Catholic faith. It is known as Latae Sententiae or, automatic excommunication for being an apostate as per Canon law 1364. So yes it is the case where someone who is an excommunicated apostate, is playing the role of a bishop that is excommunicating Manwel Dimech.

Excommunication today is nothing compared to what it meant in Pietru Pace's time. The Catholic Church's power and influence (or ruling by fear of hellfire) was such that anyone who was excommunicated was bound to starve. Nobody could give them work, nobody could deal with them, and someone who was excommunicated was made a complete outcast from what was a 100% fervent and fanatical Catholic community. Although I'm sure that there are people who still today would frown at the fact that if you go to court you choose a solemn oath over kissing a cross (and not because of COVID concerns), it is a far cry from how poignant excommunication meant in Manwel Dimech's time, because faith is increasingly becoming a private matter in Malta, not a public one. So the meaning of excommunication at the time is completely alien to the modern generation and we needed to tell that story.

As an actor I had to attempt to convey what this meant in the context of the time and I did have a little help from the invisible actor accompanying me in the form of Kris Spiteri's music. This is what I love about musical theatre - in real life people don't just give sung sermons and they don't cast souls into eternal fire and damnation through song. But the heightened emotion and heightened reality that comes from music and song, can express so much more to the audience exponentially.

The challenge was that the clergy have very ceremonious and ritualised movements that have meaning. All one needs to do is attend Catholic mass and notice the gesticulation. There is nothing natural about them - they are all part of the ritual. Blessing, welcoming, gratitude to the divine, all have special gestures and movements, and possibly so does damning a human being's soul. The problem is that nobody has seen a public excommunication in their lifetime and there is no footage or photography. There is however iconography and art which I had to use for inspiration.

Actors need to have a reason, and intention and an emotion tied to everything they do. The bishop would have specific gestures that he would have studied that evoked piety and reflected christian iconography to make connections between him and Christ in the minds of the 'flock'. He would also have had gestured with which he uses the power vested in him, to divorce a soul from the church and therefore cast it into hell. After all, the Catholic Church was still very strongly dealing with the doctrine "extra ecclesiam nulla salus", that is, whoever is not in communion with the church has no salvation.

So I had to resort to Dr Google for help and found some pictures, paintings, artworks that inspired my method and "choreography" so to speak, which had to be a ritualistic movement.

"Hawn min irid idaħħal id-dubju fl-uffiċċju li fdalna l-Mulej"

The raised right hand, apart from a gesture of power, in iconography is also a claim to righteousness, and in this case, righteousness of doctrine. All Eastern and Western iconography of Christ Pantocrator include a raised right hand.

The clergy historically evoked in ritual iconography as the dramatic/aesthetic element in ritual is an important engagement mechanism with the church goers. This is why the sign of the cross is done with the right hand, never with the left for example, because the right side of God is the side Jesus went to when he ascended and the right side is the side of righteousness.

Picture by Lindsey Bahia for Teatru Malta - Hair by Lauran-lynn Borg Calleja - Make up by Jackie Grima

"Confutatis Maledictis Flammis Acribus Addictis" - the latin chant that is casting someone to the hellfire and damnation.

Here I had to think of something that transfers power vested in a person to an object or another person. The laying of hands of a Catholic priest is for blessing. The opposite of that I thought should be an aggressive and more malicious form of it.

Picture by Lindsey Bahia for Teatru Malta - Hair by Lauran-lynn Borg Calleja - Make up by Jackie Grima

"Skumnikat!" - well this was not too difficult. The gesture to cast people out is quite universal.

Well here is my being a geek contributing a bit as well. Here is an artwork taken from GWENT - The Witcher Card Game.

But of course, the right hand is the hand of righteousness and power right?

Picture by Lindsey Bahia for Teatru Malta - Hair by Lauran-lynn Borg Calleja - Make up by Jackie Grima

Everything done has to mean something and needs intention, feeling and a rationale behind it. That is why musical theatre performers are "actors" unlike what certain people who should know better, think of us. The fact that we can sing well and dance, does not make us any less of an actor than people who are in genres where they don't sing and dance (or can't).

Every performer and cast member has assembled layers upon layers of work on their character and you should do your best to watch this show, if not for the sake of Manwel Dimech's memory, for the hard work that is put in it by everyone. See you in Kordin!

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