Updated 2.06pm with MEIA statement

Former Prime Minister and playwright Alfred Sant has said he is appalled by the decision to cancel a play following an outcry about its depiction of a character inspired by Daphne Caruana Galizia. 

"It's appalling. It seems like we're back in the 1960s," Sant, who currently serves as an MEP, said in a letter to Times of Malta

Ix-Xiħa was cancelled by national theatre Teatru Manoel on Friday after cast members quit the production, amid calls from Malta's theatre community to boycott the play and Teatru Manoel. 

The director behind the play, Mario Philip Azzopardi, first said the play was only being postponed. He later changed that to say it had been cancelled and blamed "threats of violence".

Teatru Manoel's managing board later said that it had decided to cancel the play following "public outcry" about it. 

Critics of the play had flagged the disparaging way in which the Caruana Galizia-inspired character was depicted and said that the play, which was partly funded by taxpayers, did not belong in Malta's national theatre. 

In his letter, Sant said he had never been "completely convinced" of Azzopardi's "artistic itch" and was always "less than convinced" by scripts of his that he came across.

He also noted that he was no longer active in the local theatre scene and knew little of how Azzopardi "managed to brand and project his plays", which, however, had always found an audience. 

But, he noted, such considerations were irrelevant in this case.    

"The argument has been made that if there is a public subsidy underwriting Azzopardi's venture, then it should apparently satisfy some preordained criteria regarding what is acceptable or not. Yet it’s the same people who supposedly are gangleading among us 'European' values of free speech who are advancing such an approach.

"Azzopardi has my full solidarity. What has been done with his play and production is shameful," Sant wrote. 

Sant's criticism mirrors that of lawyer and former Nationalist MP Franco Debono, who argued on Friday that critics of the play wanted "freedom of expression a' la carte." 

The furore surrounding the play had only served to amplify its reach and make more people aware of it and its contents, Debono added later. 

Manoel Theatre still lacks artistic director

When contacted for a comment, Manoel Theatre CEO Massimo Zammit said he had “nothing to add” to the statement sent out by the theatre on Friday afternoon. 

Sources in the industry have told Times of Malta that, as Teatru Manoel currently has no artistic director,  Zammit is the one who calls all the shots. In comments to Times of Malta, Zammit denied this was the case and explained that the decisions over which plays would be staged were out of his hands.

The absence of that key role in Malta's national theatre - coupled with Manoel's "lack of transparency" - was flagged as a matter of concern by the Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association.

In a statement, the MEIA said that it had raised concerns about "haphazard programming" at the national theatre last year and been promised in December that the theatre would be issuing a call for an artistic director. 

"This has not yet materialised," the MEIA said, adding that the national theatre's programming "requires experienced theatre professionals, to adopt a programming policy that reflects openness, inclusivity and artistic integrity with the community at large".

Ix-Xiħa features a character inspired by Caruana Galizia that runs a blog and speaks the journalist's final words - "the situation is desperate" - and says she hopes her critics' children "die of cancer". 

The script was later leaked by blogger Manuel Delia, who described it as "spiteful, full of hate, prejudice, and disturbingly incurable visceral violence".

Azzopardi has said that he is mulling legal action over the leak.

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