NORTHERN Ireland has been brought "back to the Dark Ages" after DUP pressure forced the cancellation of a comedy play about The Bible.
The show 'The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)', has been pulled from Newtownabbey's Theatre at the Mill – amid accusations of blasphemy.
Two planned performances next week have been cancelled by Newtownabbey Borough Council's artistic board – prompting claims that the decision makes Northern Ireland a laughing stock.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company, which is behind the irreverent play, said there hasn't been a single complaint about it being staged at any of the other 42 venues on the UK tour.
The UK tour will see the show performed at venues throughout England, Scotland and Wales, until the end of June.
Last night the story of the cancellation was being followed worldwide with reports in the New York Times and London's Guardian.
The show has been performed in Jerusalem and in front of choirs and religious groups. Members of the Irish Supreme Court who attended a performance in Dublin ruled it 'juvenile but not blasphemous'.
Playwright Dan Gordon told the Belfast Telegraph he had been looking forward to seeing the comedy, and is livid at its cancellation.
"It is dangerous to censor the arts. It's like the 16th century. I saw the controversy on Facebook and thought it was a clever marketing ploy."
After the decision a spokesman for The Reduced Shakespeare Company said: "This is the very first time in the almost 20-year life of the show that a performance has been cancelled because of the complaints of a few.
"We find it quite staggering that this type of censorship still appears to flourish in the UK.
"It's a shame these voices are drowned out by the few dissenting, uninformed ones."
It is understood Newtownabbey council received eight complaints from individuals and Christian church leaders calling for the performances next week to be axed, but more were made by email and verbally to DUP councillors.
At a council committee meeting on Monday night, DUP councillor Audrey Ball put forward a proposal that the plug should be pulled on the show at the council-owned theatre, saying it offended the borough's Christian community.
After viewing clips of it online she branded it "crude and blasphemous", and her party colleague Mandy Girvan claimed that the show "makes a mockery of the Word of God which we as Christians hold dear".
The full council was due to vote on the issue on Monday but earlier this week the council's artistic board pre-empted the vote and decided to cancel the show.
Sources told the Belfast Telegraph that they took the decision to avoid forcing members of the board to resign if the DUP voted as expected to block the show at next week's meeting.
It is understood that some 150 tickets had been sold and the cost to the council of the cancellation will be more than £2,000.
Newtownabbey Alliance councillor John Blair said: "This decision has brought us back to the Dark Ages and has turned us into a laughing stock.
"I know many Christians who would have gone to the play, who would have no problem with it being staged or if they thought they would not have liked it simply wouldn't go, but would not have wished to deny the right of others to go."
An Arts Council of Northern Ireland statement said it should be left to an audience to "make up their own mind".
"The Arts Council firmly believes in the artist's right to freedom of expression and would always defend an audience's right to attend a show and make up their own mind on its value and merit," it said.
What the critics said about The Bible: The Complete Word of God
“It’s wacky! It’s zany! And a little profaney.” Sister MaryAnne Walsh, Arlington Catholic Herald
“There is no doubt about it, these three lads are in a league of their own when it comes to vivid originality both in the show itself and its performance.” Jack Tinker, Daily Mail
“The RSC put the “fun” back in fundamentalism.” Baltimore Sun
“This is a trio of incredible comedians. The laughs come like a flood. Before you finish laughing at the first joke, you find yourself laughing at the next one.” Ma’ariv News, Jerusalem
“Not even the most sombre, uptight Scientologist could take offence at this snappy, slick and utterly entertaining show.” Scottish Sunday Express
“This miracle of miniaturisation is slick, fast and funny. This threesome’s seamless patter evokes the spirit of vaudeville.” Nick Curtis, Evening Standard
“This is a slick, fast, very funny show. They are skilled performers with immaculate, sassy American timing.” Robert Hewison, Sunday Times
“Pure fun. The troupe seems more anarchic than ever.” Nelson Pressley, The Washington Times
”In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth and lo, The Reduced Shakespeare Company came to spread the word. And the word was brilliant.” Francesca Glyn-Jones, Worcester Evening News
“Another relentlessly enjoyable romp.” Brian Logan, The Guardian
For the love of God... Bible show joins others on protest list
By Claire Williamson
The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) can now take its place in the lengthy list of productions that have been banned, cancelled or censored in Northern Ireland.
Acclaimed Northern Irish playwright Sam Thompson's most famous work, Over the Bridge – which told the story of a tragic sectarian dispute in the shipyard – was banned in 1958.
Rehearsals were already under way at the Ulster Group Theatre when the play was banned with just a fortnight to go before it opened. The theatre's board of directors stated: "It is the policy of the directors of the Ulster Group Theatre to keep political and religious controversies off our stage."
A production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical Jesus Christ Superstar was met with angry protests in 1974 when it was staged at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.
The musical, which tells the story of Jesus' life, was met with Free Presbyterian fury as it gave rise to the idea that he had a romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene.
There was more brandishing of placards for the broadcast of Jerry Springer the Opera on BBC Two in January 2005.
Hundreds of Christian protesters rallied outside the BBC in Belfast.
The musical based on the popular American's talk show sparked controversy as it featured Jesus, Mary, Adam and Eve and God as guests.
The Bible-belt town of Ballymena attracted global attention when the Electric Light Orchestra were prevented from playing a planned concert in a council-controlled leisure centre in the early 90s.
One DUP councillor famously said the band would attract "the four Ds – Drink, Drugs, Devil and Debauchery".
Brokeback Mountain, about the sexual relationship between two cowboys, also wasn't screened in the town's cinema, and foul-mouthed comic Roy 'Chubby' Brown couldn't get a gig there.
Should controversial production have been booked in the first place?
Yes says Johnston McMaster, Methodist minister, Belfast
Northern Ireland has never been short of gatekeepers and self-appointed moral police officers.
How many years ago since Sam Thompson's Over the Bridge, a play that exposed Belfast and shipyard sectarianism, was initially banned? That play didn't go away – and sadly, neither did the sectarianism.
Belfast protested against Jesus Christ Superstar and Jacob and his Technicolour Dreamcoat. And every protest provided free publicity for the shows, but the protesters didn't see that. I don't know what the play contains, but there is an issue here.
Who decides what is blasphemous and how is that defined?
Who decides or has the right to decide for others in a pluralist democracy, where diversity and freedom to be and choose are essential?
In this case, no-one has the right to police another's conscience. The Bible doesn't need gatekeepers. In fact, a lot of its literature is a protest against them. Those who protested against the gatekeepers were called prophets.
The Bible has questions that need to be engaged on the stage and off it.
No says Robert Hill, Newtownabbey DUP councillor
When concerns are raised by both individuals and church leaders on behalf of entire congregations we felt it was important to raise this at the council meeting and with the artistic board.
I know this has been a tough decision for some members of the board but its decision is one we welcome and appreciate.
Everything is censored. There has to be some level of censorship, things in the cinema and on TV are censored. Without it we would have anarchy.
When council receives a sizeable number of complaints we have to take that on board.
Some people had watched clips on Youtube and found it highly offensive and an attack on the Christian faith.
If people were mocking the Koran would people be so silent on the matter?
People feel they should be free to practice their faith without derisory comments and others mocking what they believe.
People have a right to believe what they wish but people have a right not to be mocked.