Belfast Telegraph

Bible show back after U-turn: Council lift ban on controversial comedy show based on the Bible

By Amanda Ferguson

The show will go on.

After a storm over a play that uses the Bible for comedy that reverberated around the world, Newtownabbey Borough Council has reversed a decision to ban the show during a heated debate.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company's The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged) will now be staged at Theatre at the Mill tomorrow and Thursday as planned.

Following the decision to let the play go ahead last night, demand for tickets crashed the theatre's website.

As a number of protesters, interested members of the public and the media packed the gallery, during a stormy debate councillors managed to dodge a direct vote on the issue.

In what could be seen as a choreographed move to defuse the issue, the council's artistic board -- which made the original banning decision -- earlier took another vote, and decided to let the show go ahead.

Councillors then decided to not interfere with that decision, with objectors saving face by asking for a review of the board's role. Not everyone was happy about the decision to let the irreverent comedy go ahead however.

DUP councillors on the artistic board, Thomas Hogg and Audrey Ball -- both avowed fundamentalist Christians who previously said the play was "crude and blasphemous" -- voted against the board's decision to reinstate the play.

An at times ill-tempered discussion then followed on whether or not the board's u-turn would be accepted, and who was more 'Christian' than others.

DUP councillor Pamela Barr said the "entire process had been a shambles" and that councillors had the right "to voice concerns of citizens" who felt their Christian faith was being denigrated.

She said "mocking some other religious groups or faith" would not be tolerated and there had to be equality "for all not just some".

Alliance councillor Tom Campbell said following "threats from the DUP" about voting to ban the play he welcomed they "had seen some sense" after being "bitten very badly" by public reaction to the cancellation.

"We have spent £7m on this world-class facility and want it to thrive," he added.

His party colleague John Blair said he was disappointed by the implication from some unionist members at a previous meeting that anyone who was Christian and didn't have a problem with the play "was somehow less Christian" than they were.

Sinn Fein councillor Gerard O'Reilly said: "I felt there was an abuse of position bringing religion into the council chamber."

He added he was angry that unionist councillors had brought Muslims and the Koran into the debate last week.

He said last week's DUP proposal to ban the play was all about "party politicking" and the fallout had left the council being called "a laughing stock".

"It's time to rebuild," added Mr O'Reilly.

UUP council leader John Scott told the chamber he "came to the Lord in May 1979" and people needed to be reminded that "Christianity is about tolerance".

"If Christ was here tonight he would be laughing at this mockery," he said.

"It's the biggest PR disaster for this council."

SDLP councillor Noreen McClelland said the public had made it very clear "the arts should not be interfered with by councillors".

DUP Alderman Billy De Courcy said there was an obvious "hatred of the DUP" from "those people", referring to councillors from other non-unionist parties.

He said as a Christian, a fundamentalist and a Baptist deacon, he didn't mind "stepping on the toes" of "Nuala McKeever, the minister of culture, Amnesty International and all the writers at the Belfast Telegraph and the BBC" that "don't hold my standards", referring to some of the people who have commented during the row.

Alliance councillor Billy Webb complained there had been a "scurrilous turnaround to what is factually happening here" and allegations from the unionists made against the theatre were "ludicrous".

Sinn Fein representative Gerard O'Reilly said the play had been "endorsed by clergy all over the world" and "bringing religion to a political chamber is wrong" and that he would be going to see it, as would UUP councillor Mark Cosgrove.

The council then voted to accept an amended motion for a review into the role of the artistic board.

Newtownabbey ratepayer David Cinnamond, a member of Whiteabbey Congregational Church, attended last night's council meeting.

He was not happy with the outcome.

He said: "I object to the play because of its blasphemous character and bringing the Bible into disrepute.

"I would like to show my disapproval to the play going ahead.

"It brings the character of the gospel into disrepute."

Following the decision, a spokesman for the theatre company said: "I'd like to thank Newtownabbey Borough Council and the Theatre on the Mill because I do think we'll sell quite a lot of tickets now."

This is our most inoffensive work, says co-creator

Austin Tichenor wrote The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) in 1995 with Reed Martin and Adam Long and since then it has been performed all over the world.

A RSC production of the show had never been cancelled before.

Mr Tichenor said the three authors of the play come from a variety of religious backgrounds and practices.

He said: "We were all born into the Christian tradition. Adam has at one point described himself as a Jew-Buddh-olic, a Jewish Buddhist Catholic.

"Both Reed and I married Catholics.

"Reed's wife is an observant Catholic and my wife isn't, though we both got married in Catholic ceremonies.

"Reed is a regular church goer. His parents were born-again Christians. His father, who just recently died, loved the show.

"It was his favourite of our shows because in his mind, it was celebratory of Christianity."

Mr Tichenor added: "The show is actually the least offensive of all of our shows.

"We set out to reduce a very large topic that people take seriously.

"That is the point of what we do.

"We take large topics, that people take seriously, and turn them into short and silly celebrations.

"I prefer comedy with a bite and I also prefer when I go to see a drama that there is some laughs in it, because that's life. Life has comedy and drama in it at the same time. Absurdity. Inconsistency. That's life."

He has a message for those who object to the play.

"Reduced Shakespeare fans are Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, black, white, gay, straight, brown, yellow... I mean we have fans from all over the world and from every part of life," he said.

"And they come to see our shows and they are laughing together about whatever it is. And when they are coming together to celebrate the Bible through laughter, that seems like the best thing in the world and so for people to say it is an attack, I reject that idea.

"I am sorry they feel that way, but there is no pleasing everybody.

"It's certainly not our intention to make you feel like you are being attacked, but I don't honestly understand who they are protecting.

"God, who is omnipotent, so, he can't be bothered by us, or their own feelings. And if it is your own feelings, well, get over it."

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