After three weeks of controversy and an unholy row about whether or not their Bible-based comedy should even be permitted at a council-run venue, the Reduced Shakespeare Company finally got the chance to take the stage at Newtownabbey’s Theatre at The Mill on Wednesday night (January 29).
A sell-out crowd, some of whom said they had only decided to buy tickets after hearing about the attempt to have the production banned, packed into the Mossley Mill venue to watch The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) - the opening night of the show’s UK tour.
The controversial comedy was axed by the council’s artistic board last week following claims from some DUP politicians and church representatives that it is “blasphemous” and would be offensive to the borough’s Christian community. However, after the decision to cancel the show hit the headlines around the world and the council was branded “a laughing stock”, the board reinstated it - just 48-hours before opening night.
Tickets for the show, which had been selling slowly before claims of “political censorship” caused public outrage, sold out in a matter of hours after the board’s u-turn was approved by full council on Monday night, leaving some questioning whether or not the whole controversy was just one big publicity stunt.
The packed house of 400 theatregoers, which included politicians and members of the clergy, roared with laughter as talented RSC performers Gary Fannin, David Ellis and Richard Ede raced through a series of Biblical stories, from Adam and Eve to Armageddon.
Their infectious enthusiasm and skilled delivery delighted the audience, many of whom were doubled over with laughter at the slow motion spoof of David slaying Goliath and the much-anticipated Noah’s Ark sequence, when ‘willing’ members of the audience took to the stage to help the cast provide realistic animal noises.
The slick three-hander, which to really be enjoyed requires a fair knowledge of the Old and New Testaments, is also littered with references to popular culture and gags about celebrities and politicians. Its silly songs and juvenile jokes - some of which are as old as Methuselah - could certainly be described as irreverent. But as to whether or not they could be considered blasphemous and offensive, well that would depend very much on the viewer’s own personal religious beliefs. The members of the clergy who were there on Wednesday night certainly didn’t seem to have any objections, joining in enthusiastically with the standing ovation.
As the show came to its musical conclusion, actor Gary Fannin took a swipe at local politicians who had called for the play to be pulled, telling the crowd: “If you liked the show, tell your friends. If you didn’t like it, tell the DUP.”
Reflecting on the success of opening night, co-writer Austin Tichenor stressed that the show is a “celebration of the Bible” and isn’t an attack on any faith or religious group.
He said he had been surprised by the massive controversy surrounding the play, but added that it wouldn’t put the company off coming back to Newtownabbey.
“This is the first time that this has ever happened in the over 20-year history of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and the almost 20-year history of this show,” he told the Times.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better, more friendly audience than we got here in Newtownabbey. It’s been absolutely fantastic.”
Cllr Billy Webb, chairman of the artistic board, was one of a number of politicians at the opening night of the show. He said the show was “clearly not blasphemous”.
“It is a very informative, very funny show. I have found absolutely nothing offensive in the programme that we have seen this evening,” he commented.
“I think that those who are finding it offensive are those who don’t understand or who have not seen what is actually on show tonight.”
Cllr Mark Cosgrove, who was one of those who battled to have the show reinstated, added: “The description it was given by the Irish Courts as not blasphemous but just juvenile and funny sums it up. The play doesn’t take itself too seriously and neither should members of the public.”
Despite claims that the show isn’t blasphemous, some evangelical churches have voiced their opposition to the play, claiming that “it makes a mockery of the Word of God” and is “offensive” to Christians.
Rev Brian McClung, minister of Newtownabbey Free Presbyterian Church, has vowed to stage a demonstration at the theatre tonight (Thursday).
He said he wouldn’t cancel the church’s regular midweek meeting to protest at the show’s opening night on Wednesday.
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