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NEWS | Wednesday, 04 February 2009


‘Blasphemous’ play contains hardly any blasphemy at all


‘Stitching’ – the controversial Adrian Nielsen play recently banned from Malta on grounds of blasphemy – contains hardly any language or scenes which can realistically be defined as ‘blasphemous’, raising questions about the Censorship Board’s official reasons to ban the play in the first place.
Instead, there are numerous graphic descriptions of sexual acts and situations – some of which would be considered lewd by even the most permissive standards – as well as a frank discussion on the subject of abortion.
A Unifaun Theatre Production directed by Chris Gatt, starring Pia Zammit and Mikhail Basmadjan, ‘Stitching’ was scheduled to open at the St James Cavalier theatre next weekend.
But the play did not survive a preliminary reading by the Film and Stage Censorship Board, becoming the first theatre production to be banned in Malta since The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s “The Bible - The Complete Work of God”, censored in 1998.
Producer Adrian Buckle has now initiated court proceedings to overturn this decision, which was originally unaccompanied by any explanation. It was only in its submissions to the Commissioner of Police, and subsequently to the Magistrates’ Court, that the Censorship Board cited ‘blasphemy’ as the cause of offence.
Blasphemy is strictly speaking illegal in Malta, and as such can always be cited in defence of censorship.
But when it comes to ‘Stitching’, there are only two direct allusions to religion in the entire play: and both of which, while undeniably vulgar, simply pale to insignificance compared to the kind of typical Maltese swearing heard in public on an almost daily basis.
The first is when the main character Stu (Basmadjan) blurts out the words “Jesus F***ing Christ” in a moment of angry shock; the second comes a few moments later, when the same character utters “F*** him”, in response to the observation that Sunday is “the Lord’s day”.
This sort of language may be offensive to some, but it is also considered standard fare at the cinema (where, at most, it would earn an ‘18’ certificate), and also on popular television soaps such as The Sopranos, which have been aired on a Maltese digital TV platform.
Even local TV productions such as ‘Sarah Jesse Raphael’ and ‘Gizelle’ have been known to occasionally resort to more shocking language.
In view of the fact that previous Unifaun Productions (including last year’s ‘Paul’, which contained a comparison of the Virgin Mary to a “cow”) were infinitely more blasphemous in nature, many now openly doubt whether the above allusions were the real motivation behind the Censorship Board’s surprise decision two weeks ago.
Judging by initial reactions, there is widespread belief that the ban has a lot more to do with the play’s basic plot, which revolves around an unexpected pregnancy and the active consideration of abortion as a possible solution.
This impression has been reinforced by the coincidence whereby the ban came shortly before “Pro-Life Day” on February 1 – marked by public demonstrations in both Malta and Gozo – as well as the official re-launch of a national campaign to entrench an abortion ban in the Constitution.
But board chairperson Theresa Friggieri refused to confirm or deny rumours that the play was banned for presenting a “pro-choice” perspective, on a viscerally divisive subject that remains taboo to this day.
“The matter is before the courts now, so I really can’t comment,” an audibly exasperated Mrs Friggieri told MaltaToday over the phone.
On his part, producer Adrian Buckle expressed incredulity at the board’s decision, arguing that ‘Stitching’ is the least controversial play to be staged by his theatre company in recent years.
“My team and I simply can’t understand what upset the board so much about this particular play,” he said. “But whatever it is it, the ban is unjust.”
Buckle also openly doubts the abortion ‘conspiracy theory’, arguing that while the play undeniably discusses this topic, it doesn’t present it from any one particular perspective.
Ultimately, however, the issue at stake is freedom of expression, and Buckle cites the famous Handyman versus UK ruling in the European Court of Human Rights (1976).
As a result of this ruling, the Council of Europe now defines freedom of expression as “one of the essential foundations of a society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man... applicable not only to ‘information and ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broad mindedness without which there is no ‘democratic society’”.

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