Three days ago, the town council of Newtownabbey in Northern Ireland shut down a planned engagement of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) on the grounds that it was sacrilegious and anti-Christian. In doing so, they overrode the prior decision by the town’s Artistic Council to allow the show to go forward in a town-financed facility. I abhor this action in no uncertain terms, and anything I write would simply be variations on that theme. So rather than embroider my own thoughts, I offer you – consistent with the practices of my friends at Reduced – a relatively brief compendium of what has occurred since the first announcement, all via local coverage from Ireland (links to each complete story are contained in the name of each press outlet), as well as select comments from Reduced’s chief twit Austin Tichenor. I trust you’ll see this for what it is, censorship, pure and simple.
From the Newtownabbey Times, “Artistic board axes controversial theatre show”:
Newtownabbey Council’s Artistic Board has cancelled a comedy show due to take place at Theatre at The Mill next week, following complaints that the production would be offensive to the borough’s Christian community.
The move to pull ‘The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)’ comes after councillors and officers received correspondence from individuals and church leaders calling for the “blasphemous” show to be axed.
At Monday night’s Development Committee meeting, several councillors voiced their objection to the Reduced Shakespeare Company production taking place at the council-run venue. And there was significant support for a proposal from DUP councillor Audrey Ball calling for it to be cancelled.
Other members argued against “political censorship” of productions and a decision on the issue was deferred to allow council officers time to look at potential contractual and financial implications arising from stopping the show just days before the scheduled start of its two-night run.
From UTV, “Bible theatre show cancelled after row”:
The party’s Robert Hill told UTV on Thursday that members of the public had approached representatives asking them to “get it stopped” on the grounds that it was offensive.
He said the council was “willing to take a moral stand” and hit back at those who have criticised the decision by claiming it amounts to censorship of the arts.
“Every film in the theatre is censored – that’s why there are age limits on what can be seen and what can’t. And where do you stop? There has to be a limit somewhere,” Mr Hill said.
UUP Mayor Fraser Agnew also told UTV that he felt the right decision had been made regarding the controversial play, adding that a professional facilitator had been brought in to resolve the issue.
“There were a lot of people concerned about the nature of this play, that it was anti-Christian – and we have established indeed it was anti-Christian,” he said.
From the Belfast Telegraph, “Bible spoof play ban makes Northern Ireland a laughing stock”:
It also underlines the backwoods narrow-mindedness of some people in Northern Ireland as it begins to show a more multi-cultural face to the world.
We must ask ourselves where else would this happen, except among the Taliban in Afghanistan?
Surely God must have a sense of humour – how else could he put up with the numpties of Newtownabbey?
From BBC News, “Comedian Jake O’Kane criticizes ‘zealots’ who cancelled play”:
Mr O’Kane said: “I haven’t seen the play, and unfortunately I’ll never be able to see the play because councillors have decided that we will not be allowed to see the play.
“It’s like getting in a time machine and they went back to before the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
“There was £7m spent on this theatre, it opened in 2010, and they may as well close the doors. If they are going to be the moral guardians of what we see and don’t see, that theatre is dead in the water.
“We already have laws, we have hate speech laws, that dictate what the arts can and cannot do. If it is hateful, if it is against minorities, the laws are already there to censor that.
“We don’t need a bunch of unionist councillors in Newtownabbey deciding what we can or cannot go to see.
“They call themselves moral guardians – they weren’t elected to be moral guardians. We elected them to empty our bins, make sure the leisure centres were open – that’s the powers they have.
From the Newtownabbey Times, “Council faces stinging criticism over decision to axe show”:
One Belfast newspaper claimed that the board’s decision had made Northern Ireland “a laughing stock”, while playwright Dan Gordon said it was “staggering that this type of censorship still appears to flourish in the UK.”
Alliance Alderman John Blair said that cancelling the show had “brought us back into the Dark Ages and turned us into a laughing stock”. But Alderman Billy Ball argued that the board had made “the right decision,” while Raymond Stewart, secretary of Reformation Ireland, welcomed the move to axe what he branded “an insult upon our Lord Jesus Christ and His gospel.”
From BBC News, “Banned play: Arts minister ‘saddened’ by council decision”:
“I know that the play has travelled extensively and been performed on the international stage for the past 20 years.Arts Minister Carál Ni Chuilín said audiences should be given the opportunity to “judge for themselves”
“I am saddened that audiences here will not be offered the opportunity to see the performance and judge for themselves the virtues of the show,” Ms Ni Chuilín added.
“I fully support the views of the Arts Council that the artist’s right to freedom of expression should always be defended and that the arts have a role in promoting discussion and allowing space for disagreement and debate.”
From the Irish Indpendent, “Cancellation of ‘blasphemous’ play interferes with freedom of speech: Amnesty International”:
Amnesty Northern Ireland director Patrick Corrigan said: “It is well-established in international human rights law that the right to freedom of expression, though not absolute, is a fundamental right which may only be restricted in certain limited circumstances to do with the advocacy of hatred.
“It is quite obvious that those circumstances are not met in the context of this work of comedy and, thus, that the cancelling of the play is utterly unjustified on human rights grounds.
From The Belfast Telegraph, “Bible play goes on in Newtownabbey… but only behind closed doors”:
The company behind the show, Newbury Productions and Reduced, have told this paper that they have already booked flights and accommodation and intend to come to Newtownabbey as planned.
They will take to the stage at the Theatre At The Mill for technical and dress rehearsals ahead of the rest of a UK tour, which takes in more than 40 venues in England, Scotland and Wales.
Last night a spokeswoman for Newtownabbey Borough Council confirmed the public would not be permitted access to watch the rehearsals.
“As is normal practice, dress rehearsals are not open to the public,” she added.
It has cost the council at least £2,000 to cancel the show.
Davey Naylor, general manager of Newbury Productions, told the Belfast Telegraph that tech and dress rehearsals will be taking place at Theatre At The Mill on January 29 and 30 as planned.
He said: “We will be there, we just won’t be able to perform for the public at the theatre.”
From The Irish News, “Comedy company considers other venues for Bible show”:
Last night the show’s producers – who revealed it was the first time in 20 years the production had been cancelled – said they would definitely consider returning at another date.
Davey Naylor said they believed the “good people of Northern Ireland should be free to come and see the show to make up their own minds”.
He added: “Sadly, at this late stage, I think another performance next week is remote, however, our tour goes on until April and there’s no reason we couldn’t come back at some point.”
By sheer coincidence, the website Upworthy happened to feature a video by Monty Python member John Cleese, “On Creativity: Serious vs Solemn,” which seems particularly apt to this situation, billed by Upworthy as, “John Cleese Describes Why Nothing Is ‘Too Serious’ To Be Joked About”:
I sincerely hope that the Reduced Shakespeare Company does return to play Newtownabbey. I suspect they need a good laugh there just about now.
Update, January 27 8:15 pm
From The Belfast Telegraph, “Newtownabbey Borough Council has reversed the controversial decision to ban comedy play The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (Abridged).”
The Reduced Shakespeare Company production is expected to run as originally scheduled on Wednesday and Thursday this week. Anger had been growing since it was revealed the council’s artistic board – made up of councillors and independent members – had pulled the plug on the show at Newtownabbey’s Theatre At The Mill
DUP members had branded the pay blasphemous and an attack on Christianity, but the decision caused outrage and made international headlines. But on Monday night the artistic board announced it had reversed its decision – an announcement that was backed by the full council.
From the BBC, “Newtownabbey council reverses decision to cancel Bible play”
Austin Tichenor of the Reduced Shakespeare Company said: “I’m thrilled that the Newtownabbey community can now come see the show and decide for themselves what kind of a show it is. “My biggest fear is that they’ll come see the show and go ‘this is what all the fuss was about?’. I think people assume we’re coming from a place of hatred and mockery and we’re absolutely not. This is a celebration of the Bible and I think anybody who has seen the show, and many people of all faiths have seen the show, testify to that effect.”
Update, January 30, 11 am: