Producers of banned play prepared to take case to European Court
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Producers of banned play prepared to take case to European Court

Stitching director Chris Gatt: "Text needs the actors to give it meaning." Photo: Chris Sant Fournier.

Stitching director Chris Gatt: "Text needs the actors to give it meaning." Photo: Chris Sant Fournier.

A fully dressed couple writhe violently on a living room floor as they fight for possession of a sex toy, watched attentively by a small adult crowd.

The living room in question is in a maisonette, an unusual venue and possibly too close to home for a small group of journalists to watch a full rehearsal of Stitching, Unifaun's latest production that has been controversially banned by the Board of Classification on the basis of its script.

When the rehearsal ends, a lively discussion ensues as to how it made people feel. Words such as "achingly sad", "confusing" and even "hopeful" were bandied about. Anthony Neilson's play might discuss abortion, but the audience almost unanimously agreed it is actually pro-life. None of those watching could understand why the play was axed.

Audiences at St James Cavalier may see it differently, if the play is ever performed there. But director Chris Gatt maintains it is impossible to judge the play without first seeing it performed so that 'offensive' lines can be understood in context.

"It is absurd for the censors to give their interpretation of the play without seeing it performed... the text is a work of art that is only half-formed, it needs the actors to give it meaning," Mr Gatt said.

He took exception to comments made by analyst Fr Joe Borg during last Friday's Xarabank when he read lines from the script aloud.

"Why can't the actors speak these 'offensive' lines in context to a willing audience of 900, yet those opposed are able to reel off these lines to an audience of tens of thousands totally out of context? They have breached the ban!"

Stage Classification Board chairman Therese Friggieri argues that the script in question not only contains obscene language but in some cases offends religious sentiment. It includes decadent material, shameful and perverted content of a sexual and sado-masochistic nature and references to the Auschwitz victims, which "exceeded all limits of public decency", she said.

The controversy is even gaining attention abroad. The theatre blog of The Guardian in the UK carries an article which expresses incredulity that a play can be banned in a European country, and it directs readers to a facebook group with over 700 members that opposes the ban.

It says: "Stitching has been banned in Malta. Yes, banned. Banned in a democratic European country due to host one of 2018's capital of culture celebrations."

Unifaun is prepared to take its case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if necessary.

Unifaun lawyer Michael Zammit Maempel said the producers planned to cite the Handyman v UK case in the European Court of Human Rights (1976), which resulted in the ruling that freedom of expression is "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'."

Rudiger Dossow, secretary for the sub-committee on the media committee on culture, science and education at the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, has not seen the play but he is not aware of any cases in recent times where a play has been banned completely by a classification board.

"It always depends on the facts, but a total ban is the most severe. When a play has extreme content like nudity and sex, it can be made 'adult only' and that is usually enough," he said.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees everyone the right to freedom of expression, but adds that since this carries with it duties and responsibilities, it may be subject to restrictions prescribed by (national) law for the protection of health or morals, and the protection of the reputation or rights of others, among other things.

Mr Dossow said that on matters of morals and ethics, the European Court had consistently held that national judges were in a better position to evaluate whether a restriction was necessary in their democratic society.

He also said he did not think it was common elsewhere for theatre scripts to be submitted to censors, and that plays were usually performed at a theatre company's own risk of prosecution if it was found to violate national laws.

"It becomes very complicated to ban the performance of a play based on its script because you, me and our friends could perform it in a garden somewhere," he said.

A report by six experts from the Council of Europe who visited Malta in 2002 recommended that stage censorship should be abolished because it is "inconsistent with the principles of the Council of Europe and the European Union".

Lord Andrew McIntosh, a member of the House of Lords in London and chairman of the sub-committee on the media at the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, said that although the council discouraged censorship, it was not unheard of for plays to be banned in member countries in the far east of Europe, such as Russia.

He also cited an example of a play called Behzti which was pulled from a theatre in Birmingham, UK, in 2004, after violent protests by Sikhs who were offended by its content, although this play was axed by the theatre and not by a government censorship board.

The Theatres Act abolished censorship of theatre in the UK in 1968.

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