Fears of a DUP takeover of culture in borough prompted council's arts board to cancel Bible play
Published 25/01/2014 | 11:30
It started with a handful of complaints. But now it has become a story of biblical proportions which has garnered headlines around the world and risks turning Northern Ireland into a laughing stock.
With leading figures from the arts, human rights organisations, celebrities, scientists and now a Stormont minister lining up to criticise the decision of Newtownabbey Council to cancel two performances of The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (abridged), questions are now being asked how it was allowed to come to this.
Despite the play being performed around the world for two decades without complaint, a number of DUP councillors in Newtownabbey decided that the production was blasphemous and must be stopped.
The controversy has been rumbling for several weeks. Earlier this month the Belfast Telegraph revealed the row when DUP councillor Billy Ball called for the play to be cancelled.
He told this newspaper: "As it stands, I'd be calling for public pressure to have it pulled. My wife, councillor Audrey Ball, has recently been put on the artistic board, so I know in future she will speak up for Christianity. Those against her strong beliefs better watch out."
But the controversy really exploded this week when the planned performances at The Theatre At The Mill were discussed at a committee meeting of the unionist dominated council.
There was a heated debate when a number of unionist representatives made it clear that they had watched clips of the show and considered it unsuitable for ratepayers.
The DUP's Mrs Ball, wife of Billy Ball, said the show offended the borough's Christian community.
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".
Alliance councillor John Blair, who was present at the meeting, said he was offended by the tone of comments during the debate. He also said the DUP had made it clear it would use a vote at next week's full council meeting to stop the performance.
The content of what is performed at the Theatre At The Mill is decided by the council's artistic board, made up of elected representatives and volunteers from the arts world.
Following Monday's debate the members of the board decided to hold an away day on Wednesday. There were no DUP councillors there, but it was attended by Alliance councillors Billy Webb and Lynn Frazer, as well as Fraser Agnew of the UUP and the SDLP's Noreen McClelland. It was here that the decision was taken to cancel the play.
A source who was there told the Belfast Telegraph that they feared that the members of the board would be forced to resign if the issue went before the full council meeting next week.
The source said: "We knew the DUP would have voted to stop the play and then taken control of the artistic board. The voluntary members would have resigned and the DUP would have taken control and dictated what shows come to the Mill.
"It's a very sad day for the theatre and a very sad day for the council."
The source also said that they believed by cancelling the show they would "nip the issue in the bud". It was a judgment call which was to backfire disastrously.
It is understood that only one member of the board voted against the cancellation. Voluntary member Jonathan Hodge, who is a Christian, told this paper that he was disappointed about what happened.
He said: "I feel that it is up to individuals whether they attend an event or show and political considerations should not come in to artistic programming.
"I personally voted against cancelling this particular show even though it is not something that I would have attended or been interested in. I hope we are not placed in a position where they feel they have to make a decision like this again."
But last night one of the original complainants was defiant.
Free Presbyterian Minister the Rev Brian McClung said: "They mock the 10 Commandments, particularly the commandment about adultery and why they should find that funny is beyond me.
"I don't make any apology, I want society to live by the Bible, I want those in authority to legislate according to the Bible. I don't have any apologies to make about that."
Culture Minister expresses her disappointment at cancellation
"I was disappointed by the decision to cancel the production of The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (abridged).
"I know that the play has travelled extensively and has been performed on the international stage for the past 20 years.
"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. 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."
A comedy enjoyed all over world bar here
The internationally renowned Reduced Shakespeare Company is a three-man comedy troupe that "takes long, serious subjects and reduces them to short, sharp comedies".
The self-described bad boys of abridgement have created seven stage shows, two television specials, TV pilots, and radio pieces – all of which have been performed, seen, and heard the world over.
Performances have been staged in places as diverse as Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Japan, Malta, Belgium, The Netherlands, Singapore, the US, the UK and Ireland.
Famously, the Irish Supreme Court branded the The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (abridged) as juvenile – but not blasphemous.
The company's first three shows, The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (abridged), The Complete History Of America (abridged) and The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (abridged) ran for nine years at the Criterion Theatre in London's Piccadilly Circus.
In nearly 20 years of the show being performed it has never been cancelled and – other than from Newtownabbey in Northern Ireland – there haven't been any complaints received by the 40 plus UK venues it will be staged in between next week and the end of June.
The 66 books of the Bible are split into two acts of comedy, song, dance, improvisation and audience interaction.
The first act explores the Old Testament and the second the New Testament.
Questions pondered in the show include: did Adam and Eve have navels? Did Moses really look like Charlton Heston? And why isn't the word phonetic spelled the way it sounds?
Following the Theatre At The Mill row, playwright Austin Tichenor, co-author of the Bible script and one of the managing partners of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, rejected claims that the show was blasphemous or anti-Christian.
"Our show is a celebration of all the great stories of the Bible," he said.
"The theatre is our temple and we're disappointed that people of all faiths will now not be able to gather at the Theatre At The Mill and lift their voices in communal laughter.
"We find it quite staggering that this type of censorship still appears to flourish in the UK and would like to apologise to all the audience members who bought tickets and are therefore unable to see the show.
"We'd also like to thank everyone for the hundreds of messages of support we have received. It's a shame these voices are drowned out by the few dissenting, uninformed ones."