Newtownabbey Theatre bans 'blasphemous' Bible play

At the urging of local councillors, the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey has cancelled its performances of "The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)".

A message on the theatre's Twitter feed said: "Show 'The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)' has been cancelled Apologies (sic) for any inconvenience. Call BoxOffice for refund."

Approximately 150 of the 800 seats for the two performances, scheduled for January 29 and 30, had already been sold.

The website of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, the play's writers and performers described it as "an affectionate, irreverent roller coaster ride from fig leaves to Final Judgment".

"[The RSC team] 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."

A Reduced Shakespeare Company video trailer described the play as "better than the book" and said that "in the style of Monty Python's Life of Brian, it's juvenile but not blasphemous".

But Democratic Unionist Party Councillor Billy Ball claimed it was offensive to Christians (although it is unclear if he personally has seen it).

Speaking in the Newtownabbey Times, he 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."

"For Christians the Bible is the infallible word of God and it's not something to be made fun of. 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."

Reacting to the decision to cancel the perfomance in the Belfast Newsletter, Councillor Ball said "I am pleased in one respect that the Artistic Board have taken on board the comments that have been made and, to our way of thinking, they have done the right thing."

"They listened to the voices of the people out there – the Christians within the Newtownabbey area."

DUP councillor Mandy Girvan, a member of the Free Presbyterian Church, raised the issue at Newtownabbey Borough Council meeting earlier in the week and called for the play to be cancelled.

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

Fraser Agnew, the 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."

Austin Tichenor, a co-author of the play, said "We would love to invite this person to actually see the show, which is a light-hearted and very funny celebration of The Bible. The RSC has toured the show extensively across Ireland, USA, and UK for almost twenty years, including two runs in the West End."

"The company has even performed the show at the Jerusalem Festival in Israel without objection. Hundreds and hundreds of clergy members of all denominations have seen the show since its premiere in 1995 and have both endorsed it and recommended it to their congregations."

"Our show is a celebration of all the great stories of the Bible. 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."

"It's wacky! It's zany! And a little profaney," was the review given by Sister MaryAnne Walsh of the Arlington Catholic Herald.

Sinn Féin Newtownabbey councillor Gerry O'Reilly said "certain councillors [are] forcing their religious views onto everyone else in the constituency".

"What the councillors are basically saying is that they can dictate what type of dramas people can view. This is censorship at its worse and I have not heard the like since the Life of Brian was banned in Belfast in 1979," he said. 

"What kind of a message is it to send out to the wider public, especially considering the great boost to the North from Derry hosting the City of Culture."

Freedom of speech campaigners were also outraged. Padraig Reidy, of the Index on Censorship, said in the Independent that the decision was "astonishing".

A spokeswoman for the local Arts Council was quoted on Yahoo News expressing her regret at the decision to ban the show.

"The Arts Council firmly believes in the artist's right to freedom of expression and would always defend an audience's right to attend a show and make up their own mind on its value and merit," she said.

Criticising how the decision was reached, Councillor O'Reilly said: "It was actually agreed at the council on Monday that no decision was to be taken on the play until the full council meeting this week, clearly a public democratic decision has been circumvented.

"Newtownabbey Council is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century and despite this set back we will continue to press the other councillors to recognise that it is indeed 2014."

In a statement, the Reduced Shakespeare Company said they were "saddened and disappointed" by the decision to cancel the performance.

"It is the first time since the show was written almost twenty years ago that we have had a venue cancel a performance."

"We do not attempt to "mock" the Bible, as reported, instead we attempt to celebrate the Bible in a two hour celebration of faith."

"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."

"Thanks to 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."