#ThouShaltNotLaugh

In the beginning was the play.

The play in question was “The Bible: The complete word of God (abridged)” done by the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Both the troupe and the play have been around for over 20 years, so it wasn’t some new avant garde cutting edge piece of drama. It was a mildly amusing comedy.

The venue in question was the Theatre at The Mill, a beautifully realised piece of architecture combining an original mill building in Newtownabbey with new state of the art gallery and performance spaces. It is run by the local council.

My husband is jealous of the number of evenings I spend runninganddancing, and so we have an agreed date night at least once a month. This seemed like the perfect idea for January’s date night, and so we booked tickets.

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And then, a week before opening night, the show was cancelled. A DUP member of the council had felt that play was offensive and blasphemous. Why it had taken him till so close to the performance to raise these concerns isn’t clear – the play had been approved by the council’s artistic committee months ago, had been advertised on billboards, flyers, and in the theatre’s brochure.

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Why it couldn’t have just had a warning, like the parental advisory sticker on CDs with rude words in them, isn’t clear either. Nor why theatre goers couldn’t just have been made aware of the content and left to make up their own minds.

No. Councillors, without having seen the show themselves, decided that no-one should get the opportunity.

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What happened next was perhaps predictable, but most satisfying nonetheless.  The theatre going public were outraged.  The Nolan Show took up the case.  The twitterati picked it up and gave it the #ThouShaltNotLaugh hashtag.  The Arts Minister and local comedians expressed their concern about censorship.  A Christian who HAD seen the show penned a thoughtful and measured letter, which was widely shared on Facebook.  A petition was signed.

Momentum grew – the show, which had precious few advance sales, began to sell out in its later venues.  Followers of @reduced on Twitter zoomed over the 10,000 mark.

If ever there was a case of no such thing as bad publicity, here it was.

And in a miraculous volte-face, the council reversed their decision, 2 days before curtain up.  The theatre’s website crashed under the demand for tickets, the cameras were out in force to vox-pop people entering and leaving the show, a mahoosive round of applause greeted the first appearance on stage of a cast member, and a warm standing ovation followed the closing lines.

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There are some lessons to be learned here.  The PUL (Protestant Unionist Loyalist) community in Norn Irn have a long history of not understanding the importance of PR.  The world’s cameras have seen them stoning primary school children on their way to school, fleg protestors disrupting Christmas shopping, and stern-faced men in bowler hats valuing intransigence.  Could no-one have advised the councillors that this was the almost inevitable outcome?

I was not surprised but a little disappointed that the opportunity wasn’t taken to have a “proper” discussion about what is and isn’t blasphemous or offensive.  There are a lot of grey areas, and a debate should have been instructive.  How about nudity for instance – is Page 3 offensive? Breast-feeding mothers? Topless beaches?  What constitutes blasphemy – is Douglas Adams’ “God disappearing in a puff of logic” blasphemous?  Taking the Lords name in vain on television? The internet meme of God reaching out to the spaghetti monster’s noodly appendage – is that offensive to Pastafarians?

Sadly we had The Nolan Show, a pointing and shouting match with a fair dose of “whataboutery”, but no real depth or substance.

The real winners, though, in the silveriest of linings to this murky cloud, is the Theatre at the Mill.  The staff there handled the cancelling-uncancelling efficiently and pleasantly (though the bar staff seemed overwhelmed with the packed opening night crowd of punters at the delightfully named “Yarns” bar).  Its fabulous facilites have been seen by the world’s media, and those who made the 5 mile trip to the outskirts of Belfast will undoubtedly visit again.

I think art is the ulitmate winner.

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