'Blasphemous' play cancelled
Published 23/01/2014 | 16:52
A play in Northern Ireland has been cancelled after Christians claimed it was blasphemous.
The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged) was due to be staged in the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey on the northern outskirts of Belfast later this month.
In a move dismaying freedom of expression campaigners, a Democratic Unionist-led council decided to call it off amid strong opposition from religious conservatives.
Ulster Unionist Mayor of Newtownabbey Borough Council Fraser Agnew said: "As the guardians of all that is right in society we have got to take a stand somewhere and that is what happened in this instance."
The California-based Reduced Shakespeare Company's production asked "Did Adam and Eve have navels? Did Moses really look like Charlton Heston (the Hollywood actor)?"
In its promotion for the play, the company added: "Whether you are Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, atheist or Jedi, you will be tickled by the RSC's romp through old-time religion."
A total of 800 seats were available over two nights and 150 tickets were sold, a 19% take up.
The Democratic Unionists have strong religious ties dating back to its association with the Rev Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church.
Its social mores include not working on a Sunday and strong opposition to abortion, while many members hold to a Creationist view of the universe.
A DUP-controlled council banned Monty Python's Life of Brian several decades ago.
The DUP's fundamentalist streak is not shared by all members and Northern Ireland's largest party has attempted to reach out to pro-Union Catholics in recent times.
The Arts Council is the umbrella funding body for Northern Ireland.
"It is disappointing to hear that Theatre at the Mill has been forced to cancel The Reduced Shakespeare Company's production of The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)," a spokeswoman said.
"This is a production by an acclaimed international company.
"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.
"Often art is challenging to society's values but it also allows space for discussion, debate and disagreement; this is its invaluable role and one which should be defended."
Mr Agnew, a former Stormont Assembly member, recognised concerns about infringement on freedom of speech.
He said the artistic board overseeing the theatre had accepted that the play was anti-Christian but had considered whether it would apply a veto if the material concerned the Koran or other religious texts.
"Their concern is censorship but we have got to draw a line somewhere and drew it there," he added.
Mr Agnew acknowledged that some people argued that the best form of censorship was not to attend but said pressure was applied on the council from local Christians.
Sinn Fein councillor Gerry O'Reilly said the decision was the worst type of censorship.
"This is clearly an example of certain councillors forcing their religious views onto everyone else in the constituency," he said.
"What the councillors are basically saying is that they can dictate what type of dramas people can view.
"This is censorship at its worse and I have not heard the like since The Life Of Brian was banned in Belfast 25 years ago in 1979."
A statement from the council said its members received complaints from the public about the content and nature of the show.
"In taking this decision, the board wishes to confirm its commitment to deliver on the agreed council's artistic policy to deliver the highest quality performing arts programme, offering a diverse, socially relevant and enriching experience to as many citizens as possible," it said.
David Smyth, public policy officer at the Evangelical Alliance which represents different denominations of Christian churches, said any definition of blasphemy had to reach a higher barrier rather than being simply irreverent, but claimed the title could raise issues for some.
He rejected any claim that Christians were bigoted.
"I would want to stand against that and say that we are for freedom and truth and we provide a hopeful counter-narrative in the public square."