Newtownabbey lifts ban on 'blasphemous' play

Newtownabbey Borough Council announced yesterday evening that it will be overturning a ban on performances of the play by the Reduced Shakespeare Company entitled "The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)".

In a council meeting yesterday evening, in which the Belfast Telegraph reported there were "bitter exchanges", the decision to cancel the performances was countermanded. The decision had been made by the local artistic board without direct council member involvement.

Both performances at the council-operated Theatre on the Mill will now go ahead as planned on January 29 and 30.

The Theatre at the Mill Tweeted "The show's back on!" and has announced that it will be reserving tickets for the 150 people who had originally booked prior to the cancellation of the performances.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company said they were "thrilled Newtownabbey audiences can now see what all the fuss was about".

The publicity had resulted in several other dates on their tour selling out and their twitter following had increased to over 10,000.

The play is described by the theatre company's website as an "affectionate, irreverent roller coaster ride from fig leaves to Final Judgment".

"[The RSC 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."

Some councillors however took the view that the play was blasphemous.

In a council meeting last week, Democratic Unionist Party Alderman Mandy Girvan, a member of the Free Presbyterian Church, was the first to raise the play as an issue at the council and call for it to be banned.

She was quoted in the Belfast Newsletter as saying: "It shouldn't be shown if it's going against the Bible's principles."

Speaking in the Newtownabbey Times, Alderman Billy Ball said: "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."

Fraser Agnew, the Ulster Unionist Party mayor of Newtownabbey Council, was quoted in Yahoo News saying: "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 decision to ban the play sparked a wave of condemnation. Patrick Corrigan, from human rights organisation Amnesty International described the ban in the Independent as something that "should be of concern to freedom lovers everywhere".

Atheist professor Richard Dawkins tweeted: "Play Cancelled because of offence... Don't deny offence but proudly say it's irrelevant. Those offended can stay away."

Dineen Walker, another DUP councillor from Newtownabbey, declared her intent to break ranks with her party and vote against the ban at last night's council meeting.

"I personally don't think we should be censoring things like this," she said in the Belfast Telegraph

"It's not a council's responsibility to do it.

"I do believe in God, but I am not a practising Christian, and I personally wouldn't have gone to see the play, but I don't think, as elected representatives, we should be pointing the finger at anyone."

Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the UUP, insisted that Mayor Agnew did not speak for the party on this issue. "I would describe myself as a struggling Christian," he said in the Belfast Telegraph. "I understand people have passionate views which often reflect in objections to plays like this.

"The best thing to do is simply not to go. I am not in favour of censorship. Art is to instruct and entertain and that often involves a huge challenge."

He added: "Fraser was not speaking on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party. He was reflecting the views, as mayor, of constituents and ratepayers."

The decision to ban the play was not made at council meeting, but at an away day of the council's artistic board, where no members of the DUP were present.

A source present at the away day told the Belfast Telegraph that members of the board feared they would have to resign if the issue went before the full council meeting, which would mean censorship powers could potentially fall to the DUP.

Sinn Féin Newtownabbey local councillor, Alderman Gerry O'Reilly, criticised the way in which the decision was reached. "Clearly a public democratic decision has been circumvented," he said.

The only arts council member to vote against the ban was Independent member Johnathan Hodge from Larne. He is a Christian and also a member of the Progressive Unionist Party executive, and said he had no interest in seeing the play but did not want to stop others from seeing it.

Mr Ball has seemingly since retracted his original positions. In a response to an email from a supporter of the National Secular Society, he replied: "When did I say I wanted to censor the arts? I stated my opposition to this play on its mockery of God's word."