Stories on Good Friday with Martin Gauci

In the light of the quasi-lockdown and the cancellation of all Good Friday processions, we turned to theatre maker, passion play enthusiast and member of the Atelier Francis Ebejer, Martin Gauci to give some insight into the tradition of passion plays and the work that goes into them. We hope that you enjoy our interview with Martin below.

How long have you been involved in producing passion plays and how many passion plays have you produced thus far?                                                  

Id-DWAL ĠODDA was founded in 1970; they had as their first ‘producer’ Karmenu Aquilina, who sadly passed away recently. Between 1972-74, they started to participate in the Mġarr competition where they were placed third and fourth. Since 1975, the Association has been combining theatrical work with the procession with the traditional statues of Good Friday, which in Ħal Għargħur began to take place on Palm Sunday. At the beginning it was done in 3 sections: at the beginning, in the middle to the neck of the road in a dilapidated garden, and at the end of the procession. Then, beyond some form of pageant, it turned into a demanding theatrical work in two acts: at the beginning and at the end, where everything is live, the actors intervene in the procession and sometimes act along along it as well, and in the second act the statues are set up in the middle of the square before being brought into the church. A discussion is opened with the traditional characters of the statues who come to life on stage. They shed light on whether suffering – like theatre – is a tool that breaks or polishes. I was given leadership of the Association in 1979, and of the production of Good Friday in 1982. But from the start I was involved in it: with the music, behind the scenes, conducting the choir, writing, producing one of the acts. And crucifixion takes place, a reflection of the crucifixion of our time. Between 1996 and 2003, the management was in the hands of my wife Theresa but I kept putting together the text. 

Describe the process of preparing for a passion play, how early on does work on the show begin?                     

The preparation process for each product begins immediately on Holy Week. In recent years (of course, not in the 2020 lockdown), it has become customary for a ‘core-group’ from those involved in that year’s production, to go to Gozo, to recite excerpts from the production of Palm Sunday on Good Friday in a chapel for a select audience in the traditional function of the adoration of the cross. And immediately a post-mortem and discussion are initiated about where and how the DAWL ĠODDA will make their way. Thoughts, discussions, listening to programs or a piece of music, a ‘hard or rough’ film…And so everything starts to get ready until….-

By Christmas, when HE is born, the DAWL ĠODDA will be scratching their heads over how the crucifixion will happen. The stage will be set up in the Parish Hall and towards the end of January, a process of 10 weeks of rehearsals will begin. On the Tuesday and Wednesday before Palm Sunday, two performances will take place inside, for a select audience and those who cannot stand up. And a marathon will begin to dismantle the stage and set up refined decorations along the parapet until Palm Għargħur is ‘tal-festa’.

DWAL ĠODDA has been credited with producing ”innovative theatre”. What makes your passion plays innovative?

First of all, because we part from the tradition and paraliturgy of a procession cherished for many years by the Maltese people: that of Good Friday; then because we go beyond it to see its actuality for our times: example: we wondered how the Good Friday of our times can involve people like Jitzak Rabin, Archbishop Romero, Mother Theresa; again: we strive to show how the traditional people of Good Friday (Our Lady, John, the Magdalene, Pilate and his wife and the others have something to say to the post-modern man. (In 2020, Malala had to enter the scene)). 

This will be the second year that you’ve unfortunately had to cancel your highly anticipated passion play which normally takes place on Palm Sunday in Għargħur. What does this mean for you and your drama troupe?            

As we were meeting to build a documentary: 50 years in 50 minutates, the so often repeated key word was ‘family’. And how can a family feel comfortable when you don’t meet or meet only virtually???!! Although we still try to keep in touch with each other and always be there for each other when needs be, we are feeling the lack of physical happiness: that would usually start before, during and after the rehearsals, and after, as we discuss sometimes until 02.00 a.m. The coffee kettle has always been a source of miracles for us, and we have always had something to nibble on: both for the body as well as for the thirsty soul. 

DWAL ĠODDA was founded in 1970 and has recently celebrated it’s 50th anniversary. How did you manage to commemorate this event during the pandemic?  

By looking after each other’s health and our families’ so that in a mature way we decided not to meet in the Parish Hall where our seat is, except in a very small number according to the directives of the health authorities. 

By trying our best to be of a benefit to each other in tough times. 

We are preparing a documentary (see 4 – it has reached the final phase), and we have even interviewed people who have followed us in recent years (friends, ex-members, Paul Xuereb, Carmen Azzopardi, Profs. Vicki Cremona). This was to be interspersed with a production last November in which we bring together on stage characters reminiscent of past productions: Caravaggio, the seeker in the garbage cans; the one who always wanted to work for Pilate’s wife but they never gave it to her, and when they gave it to her, the production was cancelled (what an irony!!), as was cancelled the production Deheb (the name speaks for itself) of 2020, as well as of 2021. In addition to this, the hall was used (at least) to collect clothes and uniforms for schools in Kenya. We tried to prepare a series of one-actor plays just in case; We had to do a play with for the midnight mass of Christmas 2020, in the chapel of Marsalforn Gozo. But…

Lastly what lies ahead for DWAL ĠODDA once this pandemic is over?     

I do not dare answer this one. Even while writing this I feel a kind of heartburn. I am 67 till now; I was welcomed by an association that I helped set up and together the members gave 500 producations so far. It could be that it’s going to be a stormy journey. Someone my age told me, “We ought to resign ourselves to the fact that the ones who come after us will start making theatre again.”

We must continue to believe that the sense of family is still strong; and if a family is united it may be renewed and do wonderous deeds; because theatre remains a good tool for this family: it is a tool that polishes not breaks.          

Apart from this, we haven’t been sitting idly: We have prepared a series of radio programs: The Via Sagra in our times. These will be broadcasted during Holy Week, on Net FM and One Radio in different forms in response to the call of the President of Malta for National Unity. All in all, everything passes, but that which is engraved in the minds and heats of those who have touched Good Friday or DAWL ĠODDA in Ħal Għargħur, that can never be erased or taken… and continues to care for whoever he may be, especially when he rests his head on the pillow in hopes of dreaming beautiful dreams. Goes through the umbilical cord, and ripples towards generations to come. Like this: W e  h o p e.