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Why is Wajdi Mouawad still silent on l'affaire Cantat?

On Friday, Théâtre du Nouveau Monde artistic director Lorraine Pintal announced that French rock star and convicted killer Bertrand Cantat will definitely not be coming to Canada to perform in Wajdi Mouawad's production of Des Femmes next year. Indeed, it appears that Cantat can not legally do so.

You might think this renders the whole controversy over whether Cantat should perform moot, but "l'affaire Cantat" is still far from over -- in large part because Mouawad is dragging it out.

Last night on the popular television talk show Tout Le Monde En Parle, Quebec director Serge Denoncourt really tore into Mouawad for what he saw as a theatrical attempt to "pardon" Cantat.

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"C'est qui Wajdi Mouawad, c'est-tu le pape?" Denoncourt said -- essentially: Who does Mouawad think he is, the Pope?

But Denoncourt also attacked Mouawad for not explaining himself. It's now been a week since Le Devoir broke the story about Cantat -- who fatally beat his girlfriend Marie Trintignant in 2003 and subsequently served four years of a eight-year sentence -- and the director and playwright has yet to speak to the press or release a statement.

In the meantime, it was left to poor Pintal to defend the inclusion of Cantat on this project -- even though it was Mouawad's idea, and the show, a trilogy of plays by Sophocles about women and violence, is an international co-production with a dozen other theatres, including the one he runs at the National Arts Centre.

"Wajdi Mouawad, mets tes culottes, viens-t'en ici, pis explique!" Denoncourt said, asking the director to put his knee-breeches on, return to Canada and explain. (Well, the idiom doesn't quite translate, but you get the idea.)

I have the utmost respect for Mouawad as an artist, so it pains me to admit that Denoncourt is absolutely right on this point.

While I haven't exactly been defending Cantat's participation in Des Femmes this week (I believe in rehabilitation and reintegration but am uncomfortable with applauding this man in a theatre), I have been vigorously defending Mouawad against the claim that this is a "stunt" of some sort. His plays and productions are full of compassion -- even for characters who do the most horrible things -- and I've never doubted that he has good intentions behind hiring Cantat.

And yet it's extremely difficult to defend Mouawad's intentions, because he has yet to explain them himself. And it's becoming very difficult to argue against accusations that this is a publicity stunt now that he seems to be milking it.

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First of all, Mouawad won't announce whether or not Des Femmes is going ahead without Cantat's live participation in Montreal and Ottawa until April 18, at a press conference where he will launch his final season as artistic director of the French theatre at the National Arts Centre.

I can't see any reason for this delay. Mouawad made the decision to go ahead with Des Femmes at the Festival d'Avignon without Cantat last week, so the production is obviously able to survive the musician's absence. Why then would it not go ahead in Montreal and Ottawa? To punish Canadian theatre-goers for living in a country with strong laws about ex-convicts entering the country?

Secondly, after first letting it be known he wouldn't speak about Des Femmes until that press conference, Mouawad has now agreed to an exclusive interview with Radio-Canada's RDI network on Friday, April 15 -- just in time for what he says to make the Saturday papers.

Yesterday, an NAC publicist even sent out a press release by e-mail announcing this interview with the subject line: "NAC Artistic Director of the French Theatre Wajdi Mouawad will break the silence."

Moments later, perhaps regretting that tawdry, tabloid-style wording, the e-mail was recalled. The subject line on the revised e-mail was: "The Artistic Director of the NAC's French Theatre will do an interview the moment he arrives in Canada."

That makes it sound more like Mouawad is eager to explain himself, but questions remain. Why wait to respond in a television exclusive? Aren't there phones in France, where he's currently working?

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Last election, Mouawad wrote an impassioned letter to prime minister Stephen Harper about cuts to the arts. Writing from "one functionary to another," he criticized not only these cuts but also the way the government was keeping mum on the reasons for them. Mouawad wrote about the symbolism of absence and told the prime minister: "Your silence and your actions make one fear the worst..."

It might be time for Mouawad to re-read what he wrote then.

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