Not many theatre companies announce a future production with a defiant statement that the show won’t violate laws against hate speech and war crimes. But that’s just what Paris’s storied Théâtre du Soleil (TS) did on Wednesday, in an angry screed about why it will go ahead after all with Kanata, a play by Robert Lepage that was cancelled in rehearsal after a heated debate in July about cultural appropriation.
The celebrated writer-director, whose slave-history SLAV was pulled from a Montreal stage this summer under similar circumstances, will direct the Kanata reboot for no pay. The revived version, which will run in Paris from Dec. 15 to Feb. 17, 2019, is called Kanata – Episode 1 – the Controversy.
The first version was billed as "the story of Canada through the prism of relations between whites and Indigenous people." Incredibly, no Indigenous artists were included in the creative team or cast. A group of Indigenous theatre artists and others protested in an open letter, and at a meeting with Mr. Lepage and TS director Ariane Mnouchkine.
“It was a history of relations with Indigenous people,” said Kevin Loring, artistic director of Indigenous Theatre at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. “Why do that without us?”
On July 26, Mr. Lepage announced through his company Ex Machina that the show was dead because North American co-producers had dropped out and taken their money with them. On Wednesday, a spokesperson from Ex Machina said TS will cover production costs on its own, and Mr. Lepage will stage the show “in a personal capacity and without financial remuneration.”
TS’s statement lists a number of French laws the show won’t break, including those banning racially motivated crimes. It adds that the theatre will not bend to unattributed charges of “cultural blasphemy,” and is “obliged neither legally nor morally to submit to other injunctions, however sincere, and even less to give way to attempts at ideological intimidation.”
There’s no mention of the lost North American partners, or whether they had buckled under “ideological intimidation.” New York’s Park Avenue Armory was to have presented Kanata, but hasn’t replied to numerous Globe and Mail requests to say why it didn’t.
TS and Ex Machina didn’t offer anything to illuminate the play’s new subtitle. Episode 1 – the Controversy implies the show will absorb and reflect complaints against the old one, and that there will be a sequel.
The hauteur and militant tone of the TS release suggests that Ms. Mnouchkine hasn’t budged from her initial position in July, that the only issue is Mr. Lepage’s freedom of speech. Mr. Lepage couldn’t be reached for comment on whether the new version represents a change of heart or a doubling down.
Neither director has acknowledged the core complaint against Kanata: that the play’s history of white-Indigenous relations was bound to be a phony dialogue, with whites explaining and representing the Indigenous side. That’s been going on since the arrival of Europeans in North America. For centuries, whites have been telling stories about Indigenous people that have mostly been false and self-serving. Why cling to that harmful, deplorable tradition?
Bizarrely, TS’s combative statement ends on a suddenly pacific note, with a salute to Indigenous artists, “to whom we address our most respectful greetings.” Just as long, apparently, as they stay in their lane.