Belfast Telegraph

It's a sell-out... 'blasphemous' Bible play a hit at box office

By Amanda Ferguson

A controversial play about the Bible that was temporarily banned has completely sold out.

Ticket sales for The Bible: The Complete Word Of God (Abridged) had been slow before it hit the headlines around the world – but the massive publicity has ensured that Newtownabbey's Theatre At The Mill will be packed to the rafters when the curtain rises tonight.

While all's well that ends well for the Reduced Shakespeare Company – with 800 tickets now sold – recriminations over how Newtownabbey Borough Council became embroiled in a censorship row continued. Yesterday the DUP was accused of "ignoring democracy" and "trying to censor society" by one of the councillors at the heart of the row.

The two-date run is going ahead after the council did a U-turn following public outrage at the decision to cancel all performances.

The council's artistic board – made up of councillors and independent members from the art world – last week voted to cancel the play at an away day meeting.

Neither of the two DUP members of the board were present.

But it is understood some members of the board reluctantly voted to pull the play as they felt they would be forced to resign if the issue went before the full council meeting. They believed that would leave the power to censor art at the Mossley Mill theatre in the control of the DUP.

After days of controversy, the board reversed its decision ahead of the full council meeting on Monday night. Councillors backed the move, allowing the production to go ahead after all. But the council also voted to undertake a review of the artistic board's governance arrangements – a move which has prompted fears of censorship by the back door.

Despite being strong opponents of the play, the DUP issued a statement saying blame for the initial ban lay not with its members, but the artistic board.

"Contrary to public comment by opponents and others, no DUP councillor voted to cancel the performance," it said. "The decision was taken by the artistic board... those railing against the DUP have failed to challenge the artistic board's justification for its original 'independent' decision."

Alliance councillor Billy Webb (below) – who is chairman of the artistic board – firmly blamed the DUP for the row.

"DUP members were clear in their threats that the artistic board would be overstepped and the play cancelled no matter what – proving that party's determination to ignore democracy and censor large sections of our society," he said.

Independent artistic board member Jonathan Hodge – a Christian from Larne and a PUP member – was the only person to vote against the decision to ban the play last week. He told the Belfast Telegraph he was angered by the DUP's plans to review the artistic board.

"I'm glad that the artistic board has reversed its original position, though it is disappointing and inappropriate that its members were placed in this position in the first place," he said. "I think that the right decision has now been made and those who wish to watch the show now can.

"I am angry that there has been a proposal from the DUP that the governance of the artistic board be reviewed as this amounts to nothing more than a further attempt at censoring artistic programming and politicians interfering in what is a matter of individual choice.

"It's a shame that such a wonderful venue has been undermined by this incident, and I think any review which dilutes the role of the artistic board will damage the integrity of the venue further."

On Monday DUP councillors Thomas Hogg and Audrey Ball – outspoken opponents of the play they feel mocks Christianity – voted against reinstating it.

Alliance councillor John Blair said: "As councillors we are here to serve everyone in the Newtownabbey Borough, not adhere to the religious views of some councillors at the expense of freedom of choice for the wider community.

"The DUP may have attempted to blame everyone but themselves for this situation, but the public aren't stupid."

However, DUP deputy mayor of Newtownabbey Dineen Walker – who went against her party in opposing the play – rejected the claims.

"All we are concerned about is the artistic board's policies and procedures," she said.

"All we would like set up is if there is something contentious that it comes to full council and we are made aware of it and can make a decision on it.

"It's not censorship at the back door. It's making us aware of what is actually coming up before it hits the Press."

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