Ban the ban

Anthony Neilson's play Stitching stirred controversy when it was staged at the Edinburgh festival back in August 2002. Some audiences felt so disgusted, especially at references to the Moors murders, that they walked out.

In protest, the Scottish Bible Society handed out leaflets to offer the audience a "choice".

The world of art and culture is full of choices and, more importantly, interpretation. We have probably all stopped reading books or walked out of films because we felt disgust.

Fifteen years ago, some cinema-goers could not stomach the pain portrayed in films like Schindler's List - and they walked out. But that did not stop thousands of others appreciating the way one of history's biggest horror stories was depicted on the big screen.

The Board of Classification's decision to ban Unifaun's production of Stitching deprives audiences of their right to make a choice.

The producers have argued in a judicial protest filed against the Board of Classification that the ban goes against freedom of expression, and they accuse the board's chairman, Therese Friggieri, of acting illegally.

The producers also argue that since the script itself has not been banned, and can be bought by anyone in Malta, it does not make sense to ban its theatrical staging.

It will be interesting to see whether the board has exceeded its statutory powers, and this is why the producers' decision to take the matter to court is the right one.

Some observers who agree with the board's decision stress the need to put a stop to the glorification of bad taste and pseudo-artistic arrogance. But in this day and age we have easy access to a wide range of vile scenes on television and the internet.

Telling a mature adult he cannot watch something will automatically fuel curiosity and generate publicity. It is all too often counterproductive. The role the Board of Classification should be playing is an advisory one - by setting age guidelines for films and plays.

Maltese theatre has come a long way since the last play was banned in 1997. During the production Blasted last October, also staged by Unifaun, audiences were subjected to nudity, sex and even cannibalism. Some walked out; others enjoyed it. Unifaun producer Adrian Buckle said: "My other plays were more shocking." And he is probably right.

Culture Minister Dolores Cristina said freedom of expression was a basic human right but, like every other right, not absolute. Which is exactly why Stitching should be staged - it is not defamatory, and does not incite racial hatred or violence. It is just a shocking play aimed at an adult audience.

Nielsen tells The Sunday Times today that in totalitarian states, the censorship of Stitching would be "a very serious matter. But in a place like Malta, it is almost comical - especially the idea that there is an elite group of people who can view such material without damage but then seek to protect those of weaker mind."

When she was appointed in 1998, Ms Friggieri had told The Times: "We are not appointed to cut things... our job is to classify."

As things stand, the Board of Classification has done nothing more than promote the play and encourage people who have never set foot in a theatre to go and see what all the fuss is about. What it should have done is help people make an informed choice.


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