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This Week • January 18 2004

Notice me! Notice me!

At a relatively young age Kevin Drake is one of the icons of Maltese theatre. Equally at home with comic and dramatic roles he has graced our stages since his school days. Witty and extroverted, and unlike others in the theatre scene, Drake speaks his mind about what he feels could improve Maltese theatre.
Following his role as a madman in Marat Sade, Kevin plays a bored director in Masquerade’s ‘Noises Off’ at the Manoel Theatre starting 30 January.

What first what inspired you to act, any inspiration from your family?
Inspiration? The original impetus to act was more for reasons of distraction than anything else. I suppose it all started off as being a great way to skive certain lessons at school in order to rehearse for particular productions. At De La Salle the annual ‘Rock Opera’ was quite a big deal and so the teaching staff were quite co-operative when it came to absenting oneself from class in order to rehearse. Also, being an inveterate show-off and a craver of unwavering attention is also a good nudge towards a life on the boards I suppose. Somewhere in the murky depths of their subconscious I’m quite sure that most actors have this humungously large "Notice me! Notice me!" billboard hanging around. There’s nothing like theatre for hogging the attention of a captive audience thereby, invariably, getting your self-esteem fix.

Do you get the chance to see theatre abroad? If so what do you look for?
Yes, in the UK mostly, which isn’t saying much, if truth be told. The West-End is a bit of a rip-off. Prices are way too high and productions, more often than not, verge on the bland, pandering to the masses and offering up re-heated pap that appeals to the Lowest Common Denominator. Not everything of course, but I’ve been sorely disappointed on too many occasions. Off the West End you’re liable to see some pretty good, gutsy stuff which, however, is either badly marketed or inaccessible by more conventional means of transport. What do I look for in theatre overseas? Well, pretty much the same things that I look for in theatres here, there and everywhere. Stuff that’s challenging perhaps, or, at least, that’s capable of involving directly you at different levels.

Are there actors (Maltese or worldwide) you admire?
Yes, but I won’t mention any of the Maltese actors by name cos otherwise their egos will continue to inflate further not leaving any space for my generously-proportioned ego!. Heh. Seriously though. If push comes to shove, I would dare to mention a few people I really enjoy working with or watching - at the risk of getting into deep doo-doo with the people I omit - people such as: Manuel Cauchi, Tony Ellul, Alan Montanaro, Edward Mercieca, Jes Camilleri, Monica Attard, Isabel Warrington, Stephanie Farrugia, Louiselle Vassallo and Clare Agius, to mention a few. Younger actors who’ve really blown me away of late (in a good sense!) are Chris Dingli and Alan Paris. Directors I love working with include Masquerade’s Tony Bezzina, Marcelle Teuma, whom I’d never worked with before but who really impressed me when we were working on Marat Sade recently, and Jon Rosser who, in my humble opinion, is the mutt’s nuts, directorially-speaking of course. Foreign actors? Jonathan Pryce for his theatre work, Gary Oldman, Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Murray and Nicole Kidman whom I admire both on celluloid and on stage.

What would you like to see done to achieve a higher quality theatre and attract more people to the shows in Malta?
A situation whereby one can actually earn one’s daily bread in the theatre – a professional theatre. Quality improves, better overall productions will be the norm, and I’m convinced that more people will be willing to take the necessary risks to create exciting, provocative, stimulating and relevant theatre. Sure, most theatrical productions are capable of ‘taking you out of yourself,’ as it were, and involve you in what is going on beyond the footlights. But it stops there. There’s too little drama that goes the extra mile. Theatre has a social role to play too. Where’s the theatre that challenges deep-rooted notions, beliefs and pre-conceived ideas. Where’s the theatre that makes you stop, listen and ask questions? God forbid all theatre were to be like that… but some small doses of deliberate dramatic discomfort would definitely be preferable to nothing at all.

Of all the roles you have played so far which is your most memorable and why?
I don’t really have an all-time favourite. You can’t really classify roles as you would, for example, music. "What’s your top ten favourite LIVE guitar solos of all time," sort of thing. Argan in Il-Marid Immaginarju is one role I’m particularly fond of. It was my first really big part, the leading role in the Moliere classic AND it was in Maltese. The dentist in Little Shop of Horrors is another. This was a part I’d played in 1990 and then replicated ten years later, needing a much bigger wig this time round, heheh!. It’s no great shakes but such a fun part to play especially since you get to go down in the stalls intimidating the audience. The king in the King and I… It’s a part that just takes you over. Dangerous in that there’s a very fine line between life and art sometimes and it’s very tempting to cross over and fade one into the other. But it’s an amazingly complex and challenging role that I look upon rather wistfully now. My character in ART I enjoyed tremendously, a very, very finely-tuned and technically impeccable production, as well as, more recently, Dinner with friends and Marat Sade – productions that make you feel uncomfortable, but in an oddly pleasant sort of way.

Your next play is 'Noises Off,' can you tell me something about your role?
Art and Life again… I’m playing a jaded, bored and highly-strung theatre director who’s rehearsing a repertory company for an extensive tour around the UK with this bedroom farce that revolves around sardines. His job is made all the more difficult due to the fact that he’s hating what he’s doing, he’s also rehearsing Richard III with another company simultaneously, he’s banging a couple of the cast and crew members, whilst all the while the interpersonal relationships between the members of the cast are disintegrating spectacularly. Needless to say, as the tour progresses the entire production, already shaky to begin with, unravels and starts to fall apart in the most wonderfully chaotic way. It’s a great role and perfectly suited for those with a sardonic, cynical disposition.

Do you see plays in Malta as being too text based? Too director driven? A good balance?
So what if they are? It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just the way that things are done most of the time. I suppose that most of the theatre punters prefer that style of theatre. The problem is that there’s hardly any alternatives, to speak of. Due to the volatile and sometimes fickle nature of theatergoing, people prefer to play safe and produce something that’ll go down well and appeal to the tastes of the largest number of regular theatergoers. A more fluid, experimental or spontaneous style of theatre is rarely, if ever, resorted to because there are too many question marks as to how such a production will be received. And if you’re investing in a theatrical production that bombs spectacularly (as has been known to happen) you’re liable to end up losing a few grand in the process. Yes, Art for Art’s sake…. and Money for God’s sake. That’s where Arts Council grants should normally come into it, like the proverbial Cavalry coming to the rescue at the eleventh hour, and all’s well with world again. Maybe then more people will be willing to take risks and present something with a little more oomph! in it. I don’t know why but whenever there’s mention of SERIOUS funding of the performing arts in Malta my mind immediately conjures up images of a run-of-the-mill farce. I wonder why?

Is it correct to say that theatre in Malta is going through a new lease of life?
I don’t know. You tell me. What constitutes a ‘New lease of Life’? Better attendances? More money being made by companies? More productions here there and everywhere? If it’s a question of quantities then yes, local theatre is experiencing a sort of revival. But in matters of quality… ? What of that? How many New theatergoers are being attracted to our theatres? How many cutting-edge productions - or at least ‘different’ productions - are making it to the stage? How many new actors and directors are beginning to make a name for themselves? More importantly, how many new and original plays by Maltese playwrights - in English or Maltese - are seeing the light of day? Not many. Too few by all accounts. If I were to put my hand on my heart and speak frankly, I’d have to say no, not really, there’s no renaissance here. Yes, more people are buying theatre tickets more often. That’s it. There’s still too much recycling of the same, tired old hat to start using expressions like ‘new lease of life’. Maybe I’m an accomplice in this state of affairs too. Reluctant, but an accomplice to the stagnation process nevertheless. What can I say? So bite me! Heh.

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