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This Week • November 21 2004

Diplomat turned actor

Australian former diplomat Colin Willis decided to return to Malta because he was in love. In love with a woman that is, and also because he realised he could have a good life here “because he does not feel he had to achieve anything.” While that might be true many will point out that he has achieved much through acting in some of the better plays performed in Malta, if not also through his displays on the cricket and golf field. Willis is performing tonight in Ray Cooney’s Caught in the Net at 7.30pm at the Manoel Theatre.

What inspired you to start acting? Were there any family influences?
My mother and father were high school teachers who both dabbled in amateur theatre, but it was my mum who pushed me forward at the age of ten when the chap who was playing Mole in a primary school production of Wind in the Willows got the mumps and had to pull out. I made my entrance from a pile of leaves and I’ve never looked back. In my pseudo-intellectual days at university I was somewhat snooty about my father’s ham acting, but these days I tend to see merit in being an old ham.

What brought you to Malta and what made you stay?
I first came to Malta in January 1997 to work in the Australian High Commission. After my posting concluded in February 2000, I returned to Canberra, where by a stroke of good fortune a couple of months later I was able to take an early retirement package. I recreated myself as a teacher of English and returned to Malta in September 2000 to work in the Elanguest school, where I am today. I came back to Malta because I knew lots of good people (and one special lady in particular) and because I could get a job I could enjoy while living a self-indulgent life doing theatre, playing cricket and golf and generally having a good time. I find Malta a pleasant place to live, the more so since I don’t actually have to achieve anything.

Are there actors in Malta or abroad that you admire? Who would you recommend to aspiring actors?
There are in Malta many talented actors and actresses whom I like and admire, but I’m not going to name names. Nor do I feel comfortable about naming models for aspiring actors to follow. I don’t think that actors should try to imitate the style of anyone – to thine own self be true and all that. I guess what’s important is discipline and the ability to project the feelings of a character, drawing on your own emotional resources. I can’t give any recipe for this, but I can say that it feels good when it works, when you feel the audience reacting the way you want.

Of all your many roles, which were the most memorable and why?
The role I remember most fondly was that of the Director in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, which is without doubt the funniest play in the English language. What was so good was not the role as such, but the way all the cast worked closely together to achieve a whole much greater than the sum of the parts! It is a great feeling when a cast are all on the same wavelength and ensemble playing really clicks. I also had a good time in the role of the Inspector in J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls – this production was directed in Geneva by a Uruguayan who used to work for the BBC’s radio drama. Somehow he managed to get a performance out of me that I didn’t know I had in me.
Did you ever have to prepare for a role in a way that you had to change a lot either physically or mentally? What can you tell us about those experiences?
Every role requires some degree of change from one’s everyday self, but there can never be a complete divorce of character and the actor playing the character. Physical change is not as problematic as mental change – costumes and make-up can work wonders. I recall with pleasure a musical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland in which I played Humpty Dumpty in a large papier mache eggshell and sang the Jabberwocky Song in a Yorkshire accent. On the mental side of things, I remember relishing the role of a sinister and psychopathic character in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. The character was not like me at all (I’m a mild friendly chap!), but for some dark reason I really got into the violence in him. Maybe there’s a nutter buried in me somewhere.

What can you tell us about Caught in the Net and your role therein?
Caught in the Net is a typical Ray Cooney farce involving ordinary people in situations which spiral hilariously out of control. The play is the sequel to Run For Your Wife (staged successfully in Malta a few years ago), but stands perfectly well by itself. John, a taxi driver, is married to two women and for eighteen years has maintained separate families through a combination quick thinking and manic energy. His happy arrangement is threatened when his teenage son and daughter contact each other through an Internet chat room and arrange to meet. Caught in the Net revolves around John’s increasingly desperate efforts to prevent that disaster. The action involves lots of running in and out of rooms and between households (which are shown on stage simultaneously), as well as John’s frantic manipulation of his hapless friend Stanley. After many misadventures, the inevitable revelation is made, but not without a surprise twist at the end.
This is a very funny play, and I really enjoy my role as John. Not a word is wasted and there is much hilarious business which requires slick timing and very tight teamwork. It is hard work, but all the more enjoyable for that. By the time the run has finished I expect to have lost three or four kilos.

What is theatre adding to your life?
I have been involved in theatre since my primary school days, which is quite a long time. I like acting, and people sometimes tell me I’m OK at it. During my former existence as a diplomat I got involved in theatre wherever I was posted (Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Geneva and Malta). Theatre in Malta is giving me what I have always got – good friends, interesting challenges and great fun. And an enjoyable weight control regime.

What are your future plans as an actor?
I have no plans other than to continue to get involved in any local productions which will have me. I am most impressed by the amount of theatre which goes on in Malta these days, and I hope I won’t have to rest too much between appearances. I confess to being partial to the MADC’s annual Shakespeare production and have even ventured into directing in that area.

If you could change three things in Malta what would they be?
• The Mediterranean habit of charmingly undertaking to do something and then not doing it (e.g. returning phone calls).
• The mentality which renders such terms as consensus, bipartisanship and national interest meaningless.
• Anything to do with the operations of the bureaucracy!


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