Newtownabbey council reverses decision to cancel Bible play

Newtownabbey Borough Council reversed its decision to ban the play

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A council in County Antrim has reversed a decision to cancel a play that some councillors had said was blasphemous.

Newtownabbey Borough Council's artistic board last week cancelled the Reduced Shakespeare Company's The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged).

The comic play was booked to run at the council's Theatre at the Mill from Wednesday, 29 January, for two nights.

But on Monday the artistic board decided to put the play back on and the full council ratified that decision.

The play will now go ahead as scheduled on Wednesday and Thursday.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company is already in Northern Ireland - it has been rehearsing the play at the Theatre at the Mill.

'Celebration'

Austin Tichenor of the Reduced Shakespeare Company said: "I'm thrilled that the Newtownabbey community can now come see the show and decide for themselves what kind of a show it is.

"My biggest fear is that they'll come see the show and go 'this is what all the fuss was about?'.

"I think people assume we're coming from a place of hatred and mockery and we're absolutely not.

"This is a celebration of the Bible and I think anybody who has seen the show, and many people of all faiths have seen the show, testify to that effect."

During the council meeting it was revealed that 150 of the 800 available seats for the two performances had been sold.

Actors from the Reduced Shakespeare Company performing the play The play will now go ahead as originally scheduled

The council also voted to undertake a review of the artistic board's governance arrangements.

Alliance councillor Billy Webb, who chairs the artistic board, said that was "censorship by the back door".

'Bad message'

He added: "I will be resisting any change in the authority of the artistic board whenever this comes back to council.

"I'm glad the play is now going ahead, the artistic board was under severe political pressure by the DUP in relation to this programme.

"The council has come out of this terribly and it has sent out a very bad message, and the image of Newtownabbey has been harmed."

Paul Girvan, DUP MLA for South Antrim and a former Newtownabbey councillor, said the controversy had "highlighted a number of areas of concern in relation to the governance and a review of the artistic board".

"In relation to programmes such as this coming forward there is some concern people have an opportunity of voicing that at an earlier stage before it becomes booked and in place."

He added: "If a similar play was coming forward in relation to another religion I would be taking the same stance... if it was poking fun at those of a Muslim faith I wouldn't be too keen to bring that forward either."

'Mocked Christianity'

A statement from the council said: "At the monthly council meeting tonight, members were informed that the artistic board had met earlier that evening and had decided to reinstate the show as previously scheduled.

"The council decided to note the board's decision and to undertake a review of the artistic board's governance arrangements."

A number of unionist councillors had originally objected to the production, saying it mocked Christianity.

Mayor of Newtownabbey Fraser Agnew, who is an Ulster Unionist councillor, said there was a "need to defend Christian values".

"If it was a play to do with anti-gay material can you imagine the outcry there would be over that, if it was anti-Semitic, if it was anti-Koran... all of those things would create an uproar," Mr Agnew said.

But critics of the decision said it was censorship, and leading Northern Ireland comedian Jake O'Kane said the councillors were "zealots" who "weren't elected to be moral guardians".

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