The offbeat Cavalier

Visitors to Valletta in Malta this year can visit one of Europe's most unusual theatres
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The Independent Culture

It's been estimated that half the population of Valletta worked at one time or another as extras on Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Certainly, just about everyone can tell you a story about watching Oliver Reed down an amazing cocktail of drinks in Blue Room, Rubino or "The Pub" in Archbishop Street where eventually he died.

It's been estimated that half the population of Valletta worked at one time or another as extras on Ridley Scott's Gladiator. Certainly, just about everyone can tell you a story about watching Oliver Reed down an amazing cocktail of drinks in Blue Room, Rubino or "The Pub" in Archbishop Street where eventually he died.

But the other big event in the Maltese arts world this year has been the opening of the St James Cavalier, possibly one of Europe's most offbeat arts centres. For those who always thought a cavalier was one of those guys with long hair fighting for Charles I, the time has come to think again. Valletta has two cavaliers that were erected in 1566 by the Knights of St John. Having withstood a vicious four-month siege the knights were determined to be better prepared for the Turkish next time they came marauding. Most of the crowned heads of Europe contributed funds to fortify Malta against Islam, and some of that money went on building these two 60ft-high artillery platforms that stand either side of entrance to this walled city.

Valletta's windowless stone cavaliers were never called upon to repulse further invasions, but during British rule of Malta these twin monoliths were commandeered as barracks. Later, British engineers dug two huge water cisterns into the roof of the St James Cavalier to augment Valletta's water supply during the long, hot Maltese summer. One of these 55ft-diameter cavities has now been converted by architect Richard England into a 150 seat theatre while the other provides a circular staircase to all levels of his new arts centre. The building contains workshops, performance areas, a jazz café, a cinema, and book and record shops, while the long stone ramp, for heaving cannon to the top of St James's, now doubles as an exhibition area.

According to Richard England, the main challenge at St James has been to turn a closed, defensive war machine into a building around which visitors can easily circulate. He has had to hack through several walls while struggling to retain the building's identity as an integral part of Valletta's fortifications.

Despite its undisputed position as capital of the Maltese islands, Valletta has not been properly served for the arts since 1942 when a German bomb destroyed the opera house designed by Edward Middleton Barry, the architect of Covent Garden.

If the Knights of St John were running Malta today, they wouldn't recognise the old place.

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