Council’s U-turn over theatre ban

The Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey
The Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey

The ban on a Bible-based comedy show at a council-run theatre has been overturned by Newtownabbey councillors.

Following last week’s cancellation of ‘The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)’ leading figures in the arts and entertainment world lambasted the council’s Artistic Board for preventing the two Theatre at The Mill performances going ahead.

However, the board had reluctantly taken the decision fearing the DUP-dominated council would vote to ban the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s irreverent comedy when they met last night – only two days before the first show.

Councillors who supported the shows claimed the decision to ban made them look like a laughing stock and there were bitter exchanges at last night’s council meeting when it was agreed the production should go ahead as scheduled tomorrow.

Newtownabbey mayor Fraser Agnew said he supported the original decision to pull the plug.

He said: “You need to put this in context because they are poking fun at the Bible, they are poking fun at Christ.”

Speaking immediately following the meeting, Alliance councillor Billy Webb said the “image of Newtownabbey had been harmed”.

He added: “But I am determined, as a local representative and as the chair of the Artistic Board, that we will put that to rights.

“We have dedicated volunteers on that Artistic Board. They have expertise and they are keen that that expertise will be used for the benefit of the theatre.”

Austin Tichenor of the Reduced Shakespeare Company told the BBC he was thrilled the “Newtownabbey community can now come and see the show and see for themselves what kind of a show it is”.

DUP councillor Billy Ball had supported the ban.

Speaking earlier this week, he said: “A lot of people think we are against everything but we’re not. This particular subject matter was just beyond the pale. In the past we have left it to the Artistic Board and we have never stopped anything. Somebody had to say something.”

Richard Dawkins was among several high-profile critics of the decision and circulated press coverage of the story to his 885,000 Twitter followers. Author of the 2006 book ‘The God Delusion’, Dawkins posted the message: “Play cancelled because of ‘offence’? Don’t deny offence but proudly say it’s irrelevant. Those offended can stay away.”

The production is booked to play 42 theatres across the UK and the RSC claims there have been no other complaints.

Ulster Unionist Councillor Mark Cosgrove, who opposed a ban, had described the censorship was an attack on his “British values”.

He said: “My British values, and my Christian values, are tolerance and mutual respect.”

Ahead of last night’s meeting the minister of Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church, which is close to the Theatre at the Mill, wrote to Newtownabbey Council praising it for the original ban.

In the letter, Rev Warren Peel said: “The Bible’s authority is being increasingly ignored in our Province and we are reaping the bitter fruit of that carelessness.

“This kind of calculated irreverence exemplifies and undermines further people’s lack of respect for the word of God.”

Meanwhile, a Sinn Fein MLA has called on DUP leader Peter Robinson to state whether he supported the actions of DUP councillors in supporting the ban.

Cathal O hOisin, who sits on the Assembly’s Culture Committee, said: “Dictating what entertainment people can and cannot see has angered a lot of people and the DUP leader should let us know where he stands on the denial of freedom of speech by his party members.”