Controversy surrounds play 'The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)'

"The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)", a play by the Reduced Shakespeare Company has caused controversy in Newtownabbey, in Northern Ireland.

Because of its less than reverential handling of scripture, one Democratic Unionist Council Alderman is calling for the performances to be halted.

William Ball, one of three Aldermen for the University district on the Newtonabbey Borough Council, said in the Newtonabbey Times: "It's probably too late now as it's already been passed, but I think the Artistic Board needs to look again to see if they can pull this play. It should never have been accepted in the first place.

"The Artistic Board claims to be representative of everyone and all parts of the community, but at the end of the day it will put on whatever it wants to whether it offends a large section of the community or not. It seems that if you are a Christian in Newtownabbey your opinion doesn't matter and it is just tough.

"For Christians the Bible is the infallible word of God and it's not something to be made fun of. These people are treating something sacred with irreverence and disrespect."

It has not been made clear if Alderman Ball has seen the play at the present time.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company's website describes the play as "an affectionate, irreverent roller coaster ride from fig leaves to Final Judgment as the boys tackle the great theological questions: 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?"

"Whether you are Catholic or Atheist, Muslim or Jew, Protestant or Purple People Eater, you will be tickled by the RSC's romp through old time religion. Remember… Someone is watching."

Not all Christians are offended by the performance, as was demonstrated by Sister MaryAnne Walsh's review of the play in the Arlington Catholic Herald. She is quoted on the RSC's website as saying. "It's wacky! It's zany! And a little profaney."

The play is not without understanding of the significance of the material, with a Catholic Herald review from an American performance in 2008 pointing out: "To the writers' immense credit, the almost nonstop chaos is suspended during occasional moments of quiet and respect: one while reciting Psalm 23, another during the Passion. The pauses help the audience catch its breath, and lend a strange kind of credibility to the otherwise completely nonsensical production."

But this does not seem to satisfy Alderman Ball, who attends the People's Church in Mallusk. In the Belfast Telegraph, he is quoted as saying: "As we enter the year of Shakespeare's 450th birthday, why aren't they coming to Newtownabbey with an appropriate production?

"If they were doing Shakespeare there would be no problem and I'm sure it would be great. But why do they have to pick on the Bible and make a mockery of it?

"People die every day for the Bible in countries where believers are persecuted.

"If this was the Koran we were talking about it just wouldn't happen because they know there would be a big public outcry about it.

"The Artistic Board has made the wrong decision in bringing this play to Newtownabbey and to council property."

The issue was raised when Alliance Party Alderman John Blair raised concerns over political censorship at the local theatre. He claimed that certain lines of dialogue, thought to have referred to the Ulster Scots language and the wife of a senior politician, had been altered during the run of a recent comedic production at the theatre.

The Newtonabbey Times reported that he warned the council about "a fine line between exercising caution and political censorship" and requested assurances that there would be no censorship of productions at the theatre in the future.

Responding to Alderman Ball's criticism, Alderman Blair said: "He is entitled to his opinion, but I don't happen to agree with him.

"I believe that any artistic programme for a proper, professional theatre has to be very wide ranging and will not suit all of the people all of the time, but that is exactly what wide ranging means.

"In any event the decision will lie with the Artistic Board, which is representative of the community and of the council.

"It would be a negative step to start examining ad hoc requests for political censorship raised on the whim of one member."

Alderman Ball has responded to future productions of this kind by pointing out the following in the Belfast Telegraph. "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."

Speaking to Christian Today, Davey Naylor, the General Manager of Newbury Productions defended the production as "a celebration of faith".

A spokesperson for the Newtownabbey Borough Council added: "The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) by the Reduced Shakespeare Company is a modern comedy which looks affectionately at biblical times. The artistic programme provided by the council aims to offer a diverse range of shows by leading arts performers with something for everyone."

The play is being performed from January 29 to 30 in Newtonabbey's Theatre at the Mill.

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