A ‘blasphemous’ comedy about the Bible which was banned by unionist religious extremists in County Antrim went ahead this week after international publicity shamed the council into a u-turn.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s comic play entitled ‘The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)’ played to a full house of 400 people on Wednesday. The Monty Python-style ‘romp’ had been censored after it was identified as ‘blasphemous’ by unionist politicians on Newtownabbey council.
Following the reversal, the council box office was forced to extend its opening hours on Tuesday, and its website also crashed because of a surge in demand. Originally, just 150 of the 800 available seats for the two performances had been sold. However, after the controversy erupted, tickets for both nights at the theatre sold out.
The play has been described as a light-hearted attempt to condense the story of the Bible into less than two hours.
In its promotion for the play, the company said: “Whether you are Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, atheist or Jedi, you will be tickled by the RSC’s romp through old-time religion.”
Speaking after Wednesday’s show, one member of the audience said: “I don’t know what the fuss was about. It was hilarious and marvellous.”
Others said the ban that had influenced them to come, but that it had not been as controversial as they had hoped. One man said: “Calling this play offensive is a joke in itself”.
Last week a number of unionist councillors objected to the production, saying it mocked Christianity. Local politician Billy Ball, of Peter Robinson’s DUP, had called for the show to be banned.
“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”
Free Presbyterian Minister, the Reverend Rev Brian McClung, was one of the people who complained about the content of the play.
After news of the censorship order spread, he hit back at those who said the cancellation made Newtownabbey council look ridiculous.
“It’s never a laughing stock to stand up for what’s right, no matter how many oppose it,” he said.
But Amnesty International said the cancellation of the play interfered with freedom of speech. Six County Amnesty representative Patrick Corrigan said freedom of expression could only be restricted “in limited circumstances”.
“It is quite obvious that those circumstances are not met in the context of this work of comedy and, thus, that the cancelling of the play is utterly unjustified on human rights grounds.”
Sinn Féin’s Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Caral Ni Chuilin, said she had been “saddened” by the censorship decision.
But as the story spread to Britain and internationally, and amid an outcry on social media, the ‘artistic board’ of Newtownabbey council said on Monday it had reversed the decision, an announcement later backed by the full council.