A comic musical produced by the Reduced Shakespeare Company has been banned for the first time in almost 20 years of touring by small town politicians in Northern Ireland who declared it to be blasphemous.
Protestant councilors in Newtonabbey, a town on the province’s east coast, have forced the local theatre to cancel next week’s planned performances of The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged). Audrey Ball, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), said she had watched clips of the play online and found it to be “crude and blasphemous.” Her party colleague, Mandy Girvan, said the show “makes a mockery of the Word of God which we as Christians hold dear”.
The rest of the population appeared to be watching on in embarrassment as religious disputes, which convulsed the province for generations, returned to the headlines. Evangelical members of the DUP, the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, have previously protested against Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the musical Jesus Christ: Superstar, but those campaigns were decades ago. The Belfast Telegraph said it was worried that the latest decision to ban a mainstream show “makes Northern Ireland a laughing stock.”
The comedian Jake O’Kane wrote on Twitter: “DUP are our version of the Taliban.”
While the debate raged in Northern Ireland, the California-based Reduced Shakespeare Company were left bemused by the criticism of a show that has successfully toured the world without incident, including performances in Jerusalem where organizers joked that they only show Act One: the Old Testament.
Austin Tichenor, co-author of the play, said the whole company was taken aback by Newtonabbey’s conservative stance. “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,” he said. “We find it quite staggering that this type of censorship still appears to flourish in the UK and would like to apologize to all the audience members who bought tickets and are therefore unable to see the show.”
Producers of the play claim members of the Irish Supreme Court once saw a production in Dublin and declared the show to be “juvenile but not blasphemous,” a slogan they soon adopted.
Involving just three actors, the play depicts all of the major stories in the Bible—the Last Supper comes to resemble musical chairs while the audience itself takes part in the story of Noah’s Ark. The company describes it as an “affectionate, irreverent re-telling of the ultimate best-seller.”
Democratic Unionist Party councillor Billy Ball didn’t appreciate the affectionate side. He led the campaign to have the show cancelled with in an article in the Newtownabbey Times. “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,” he argued. “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.”
Before it was officially canceled, Dave Naylor, the play’s producer, said: “Maybe Councillor Ball should come and see our show before denouncing it as unholy. But he’d better be quick as all his comments have done is increase ticket sales.”
Those tickets are now being refunded after Fraser Agnew, the mayor of Newtownabbey sided with his fellow Unionists. “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,” he said.