A Play With Music by a Convicted Murderer: Was It Worth It?

A Play With Music by a Convicted Murderer: Was It Worth It?

PARIS — Traumatized individuals reach a standoff. They talk past each other; the more powerful party is too hurt to mitigate the pain they inflict. Ultimately, no one wins.

Recently, this story unfolded both on- and offstage at La Colline — Théâtre National, the Paris playhouse led by the Lebanese-born theatermaker Wajdi Mouawad, one of the biggest names in contemporary French theater. In November, Mouawad unveiled a very personal new play, “Mother” (“Mère”), inspired by his family’s exile from Lebanon during the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. In the weeks leading up to the premiere, however, “Mother” became embroiled in conflicts of its own.

In early October, the hashtag #MeTooThéâtre began trending in France; with it came a wave of testimonies about sexual abuse and harassment in the country’s playhouses and drama schools. A collective of the same name was created to agitate for change, and Mouawad’s programming was quickly singled out for criticism. In 2022, La Colline theater is set to host a production by the director Jean-Pierre Baro, who has been accused of rape, a charge he denies. Additionally, the composer and singer Bertrand Cantat, who was convicted of killing his partner Marie Trintignant in 2003, was commissioned by Mouawad to create the music of “Mother.”

It’s not the first time Mouawad has hired Cantat. In 2011, the singer even appeared onstage in one of Mouawad’s shows, a play titled “Women” (“Des Femmes”). The ensuing controversy led to the cancellation of a number of tour dates and Cantat’s withdrawal from the cast when the production played at the Avignon Festival.

Mouawad’s response to #MeTooThéâtre has been rigid. In an open letter on Oct. 19, he likened his detractors to “a contemporary form of the Inquisition” and said they were engaged in a “lynching.” He added that claims should be adjudicated only in court. On Oct. 19, a demonstration in front of La Colline delayed the “Mother” premiere by 30 minutes. The protesters called on Mouawad to resign, and booed the audience members walking into the theater.

Was it worth it? That question should be asked of Mouawad, who has been known until now as a progressive supporter of multicultural stories and a promoter of young artists. On opening night, when he came out into the auditorium for a preshow announcement, he carried on as if nothing had happened. Yet this stance interferes with the reception of what is otherwise a strong production, to which Cantat actually made a minimal contribution.

Credit…Xavier Leoty/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The play is centered around Mouawad’s own mother, Jacqueline. In 1978, she fled war-torn Lebanon with her three children, while her husband stayed behind. The family landed in Paris, where they spent the next five years anxiously waiting for the phone to ring, with news that they could return home.

“Mother” recreates vignettes from their fractured home life amid an unfussy wooden set. Two superb Lebanese actresses, Aida Sabra and Odette Makhlouf, play Jacqueline and Mouawad’s sister Nayla. (His brother is mentioned, but not shown.) While the young Mouawad is played by a child, Dany Aridi on opening night, the director himself is never far away. Throughout, Mouawad observes the proceedings up close onstage, moves furniture and props around and, ultimately, takes the spotlight to confront his mother, who in real life died from cancer in 1987.

There is a harrowing amount of raw pain in “Mother.” In a vivid mix of Arabic and French, Sabra perfectly captures Jacqueline’s deteriorating mental health, and the unprocessed anger she projects on to her children. She berates her young son for not learning French faster, yet never really adjusts to life in Paris. On the phone, early on, she cries: “I am in ruins.”

Further weaving reality into fiction, Mouawad cast Christine Ockrent, a well-known news anchor who was a near-daily presence on French television in the 1980s, in her first stage role. In her best broadcast voice, Ockrent reads dispatches from Lebanon, but also becomes an imaginary presence in the characters’ lives, chatting with the children and cooking with Jacqueline.

Mouawad’s own meta-dialogue with his mother is both the high point of the show and a clue to his overall state of mind. “I wrote this scene to talk to you,” he tells Sabra, playing Jacqueline. He has been unable to cry since his mother’s death, he adds, before pleading with her to tell his younger self “that you love him, once.”

It doesn’t take a therapist to see that Mouawad’s grief, at this point, goes far beyond acting. Onstage, he mentions the loss of his father to Covid last year; his long-term theatrical collaborator and mentor, François Ismert, also died in early September. In a scene near the end of “Mother,” Mouawad pulls out a gun and pretends to shoot himself, seven times.

What of Cantat? His contribution amounts to six recorded songs — no more than 15 minutes, over two and a half hours. Several of them are raspy reinterpretations of classic French songs from the era the play is set in, and Cantat is buried down the list of credits. On opening night, unsurprisingly, he didn’t come out for a bow.

The songs are too anodyne, and fleeting, to add much to “Mother.” It is pretty disturbing, however, to hear Cantat sing sensual lines at one point to Makhlouf, as Mouawad’s sister. For those in the audience who are aware of the singer’s identity, and there will be many, moments like this are an obstacle suspending disbelief. Cantat may have served his prison sentence for murder, but that doesn’t mean his presence is neutral; it actively distracts from the story of “Mother,” something no other singer would have done. (As a friend from Lebanon pointed out after the show, a Lebanese composer would also have been a more coherent choice.)

Mouawad may be too deep in his feelings to realize this. He has always been hierarchy-averse, and his open letter about #MeTooThéâtre, as well as “Mother,” make it clear that he sees himself as on the side of the oppressed. “I won’t be pitted against the notion of a victim. I was a victim,” he wrote.

But two things can be true at once. The traumatized boy who experienced exile grew up to become the powerful artistic director of one of France’s most prestigious theaters. Criticism comes with the territory; an understanding of the zeitgeist in which theater productions come to life should, too.

In any other context, “Mother” would have been hailed as an unqualified success. Yet the presence of Cantat on the creative team is the hill on which Mouawad has chosen to die. From the audience perspective, it’s simply not worth it.

Through Dec. 30 at La Colline — Théâtre National in Paris; colline.fr.