The decision to ban an irreverent stage comedy based on the Bible story has been strongly defended by the mayor of Newtownabbey.
Ulster Unionist councillor Fraser Agnew said the show – The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged) – would not now be shown at a council-run theatre next week as it “poked fun at God”.
Commenting on the storm of negative publicity the censorship has created, Cllr Agnew said: “You need to put this in context because they are poking fun at the Bible, they are poking fun at Christ – all of that and it is done in a way that they use bad language.”
Among those who have spoken out against the ban are Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin and Amnesty International NI. The minister said that “freedom of expression should always be defended,” and that “the arts have a role in promoting discussion and allowing space for disagreement and debate”.
Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty said: “Such interference with freedom of speech and artistic expression should be of concern to freedom-lovers everywhere.”
A video trailer for the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s comedy describes the production as being “better than the book”.
Cllr Agnew said he attended the meeting earlier this week when the council’s Artistic Board decided to cancel the show.
“Everyone [else] who was there was in favour of the play. They talked about censorship, but at the end of the day they were prepared to take on board the fact there were a lot of people in Newtownabbey who didn’t want this play to be coming there.
“My view is that you need censorship. I just don’t know where you draw the line in all honesty, but there is a line that has to be drawn somewhere – otherwise you can have all sorts of shows appearing, like live sex shows.”
DUP councillor Billy Ball had also proposed a ban.
“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.”
Cllr Ball added: “They listened to the voices of the people out there – the Christians within the Newtownabbey area who in the past felt as if they were being ignored.”
Responding to complaints that the theatre company didn’t mock other religions, the show’s producer Dave Naylor said: “I don’t know anything about the Quran, and neither do the writers of the show, but we do know about the Bible and it’s more important to us, the Bible, because we are Christians.
“We have not had one complaint from anyone in any of the other 42 venues that we are going to around the rest of the UK.”
Only 150 tickets (19 per cent) of a total of 800 available over two nights were sold in advance.