Sunday 19 September 2021

Only the lonely

This column first appeared in Malta Today

A recent study, ‘The Prevalence of Loneliness in Malta’, by the University of Malta’s Faculty for Social Well-being and the National Statistics Office has concluded that people are more likely to be lonely if they live alone, are widowed, separated or divorced, are disabled, or rate their general physical health as bad.  Other factors which contribute to loneliness include financial insecurity, age and lack of education. 

These conclusions might seem obvious at first glance, and yet in a society which seems to care less and less about the plight of others, sometimes pointing out the obvious is necessary. It stands to reason that lack of real human communication in the forms of a significant other, family and friends, can seriously deteriorate one’s state of mind and bring about excruciating loneliness. Not having the financial means to go out and socialise, and not having enough skills to know where to look to reach out to others, can psychologically cripple a person even further until they become more and more reclusive.  43.5% of the 1000 people who were interviewed said they suffered from varying degrees of loneliness, ranging from moderate to very severe loneliness. That is quite a sobering thought and the paradox should not be lost on us that this is happening at a time when we are always “connected” and seem to know more about each other’s lives than ever (or at least the life which we choose to portray virtually). 

It seemed rather timely that I read about this study on the same day that we went to watch the play Meta Ġrejna Wara x-Xemx,  which tackles the difficult topic of loneliness and despair in a very unique way.  Five friends, now in their mid-30s, who are bound by a shared carefree childhood and adolescence in Għadira and a love of the Power Rangers, are torn apart by tragedy and sorrow. 12 years later, four of them reunite at their favourite haunt, the boathouse, where they had spent so many happy hours, and where they try to make sense of what happened to each of them, as the cold reality of adulthood replaced the often reckless antics of their youth.  They especially want, and desperately need, to make sense of why one of them has committed suicide. 

The original script by Clive Piscopo (who is also one of the main actors) is reason enough to watch this play because of its perfect, colloquial use of the Maltese language. Directed by Lee-N. Ablea, it is easy and flowing,  peppered with (often hilarious) obscenities because let’s face it, that is the way many people actually talk when they let their guard down and are among close friends.  Except for a couple of scenes which could have used some editing, Piscopo hardly misses a beat in capturing the rhythm and flow of spoken Maltese.  He also has a knack for not letting the tone of the play become too heavy and melodramatic through the device of using one of the characters, “DJ Lovely” (brilliantly played by Christine Francalanza) who always manages to come up with a funny raunchy quip even in moments of great pathos.  Piscopo plays Kevin, who is DJ Lovely’s counterpart as they indulge in constant no-holds-barred banter, picking mercilessly on each other in the way that siblings, or only very close friends, can really do. 

The constant jokes of these two characters, however, are just a camouflage for the own past troubles, an important observation made by the author who hones in on how those who seem to always be the life of the party are often hiding a lot of pain. 

Similarly, Roberta (Sarah Camilleri), Daniel (Christian Grech) and Tommy (Luke Magro) all have their own secrets and anguish, and it is only after they are forced to be “real” with each other that they can finally admit what each of them has been through in the last 12 years.  

I found the social commentary of this play to hold an extremely important message which is a reflection of our times, especially in contrast to what seemed like the friends’ idyllic childhood set against the backdrop of the popular Japanese cartoon characters they all loved. The poignant flashbacks and reminiscing are something we can all relate to, for no matter how old we may be, life always seemed better, much simpler and happier when we were young. Speak to each generation and they will adamantly tell you that the decade they grew up in was absolutely the best. That’s not surprising, because that decade represents their youth.  Who does not yearn with nostalgia for the days when we had no responsibilities and when it seemed nothing bad could really happen?  

In this abandoned boathouse in Għadira, which holds so many memories, will these four friends ever manage to reconnect with the same raw honesty they shared as children and teenagers? Or will they each go their separate ways again, still wrapped up in themselves and their own problems? 

This drama touches on the very essential ingredient of what true friendship really means –  is it just for the laughs, for the pranks, for when we go out and get drunk and do crazy things together while on holiday? Or should real friendship be much more profound than that and help us to get through our darkest, most bleak hours – a question which the four friends relentlessly torture themselves with at their reunion. Why did Tommy not reach out to them?

It is the question everyone asks after a suicide; the one which nags at family and friends who thought they knew this person but realise they didn’t –  not really anyway.  This play makes us all question our own relationships and how meaningful they really are. Do we ever pick up the phone when someone hasn’t been in touch in a while, or do we dig our heels in and wait for them to make the first move? Can we recognise a silent cry for help or are we put off by someone’s sullen, withdrawn silence? 

In a world where everyone seems happy (just look at their Facebook!) it is the tragedy of this day and age that people prefer to put on a fake smile and delete 20 selfies until they take and upload the ‘perfect’ one, so that the world can think they are living the life.  It is very sad to realise that the phenomena of FB and Instagram have turned us into such self-indulgent narcissists that too many people wake up in the morning with the primary goal of making others envious of their lifestyle.  It is even more tragic that the rates of depression and anxiety have never been higher. 

Meta Ġrejna Wara x-Xemx is on at Spazzju Kreativ from today until Sunday

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