The play that was ‘too shocking’ for Malta | Adrian Buckle

Few local stage productions have had as long a gestation period as Anthony Nielson’s ‘Stitching’. Originally banned in 2009, the controversial play has since been to the European Court of Human Rights and back; and nine years later, Unifaun Productions is finally preparing to raise the curtain on a play that was once deemed too ‘shocking’ to be seen in Malta. Producer Adrian Buckle looks back on a decade of controversy

A lot has changed in Malta since ‘Stitching’ was banned in 2009. The Theatre Censorship Board itself has meanwhile been abolished, and many of the controversies surrounding this play have been overtaken by public discussion anyway. Isn’t there a danger, then, that ‘Stitching’ will prove an anticlimax? That people will ask themselves, ‘what on earth was all that fuss about?’

That’s precisely what I think is going to happen. In fact, I’m even including a note in the programme, saying that ‘If anyone is shocked, feel free to leave the theatre’. I seriously doubt, however, that anyone will leave. There really isn’t all that much to object to in ‘Stitching’. It has been staged in Scotland with an ‘age-14’ certificate. And it was banned in Malta? Come on...

With hindsight, it does seem odd that so much controversy would erupt over Nielsen’s play. How do you account for the disproportionate reaction at the time? What would you say the main objection was ultimately to?

It’s hard to say, really.  First of all, the official reasons were given very late in the day. And when they came, they were just... weird. It was clear they were trumped-up charges. The censors cited ‘blasphemy’; a reference to ‘child murderers’; I mean, so what? Child murderers exist. Can’t we talk about them? And we do, in other plays. The censors’ objections would make it impossible to stage even classical plays like Euripedes’ ‘Medea’, or Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’. These are themes that have been tackled head-on by theatre for millennia. Why was it such an issue with ‘Stitching’? Still, for what it’s worth, my belief is that it was a reaction to my earlier play, Sarah Kane’s ‘Blasted’. That play created some issues. It was very graphic, and arguably the first of its kind in that respect. I think there was a political will to clip my wings after that: to stop me doing that kind of theatre. I also know that a certain priest didn’t like it, and vowed to stop whatever came next. I suspect he got in league with the censors to halt my next production; and my next production happened to be ‘Stitching’...

...which is very different from ‘Blasted’...

Oh, totally different. ‘Blasted’ was a controversial play in its time. Nowadays, is considered a classic; but when it was first released, it created a very big commotion everywhere, not just Malta. But people have since come round to appreciate what Kane was actually saying with that play. ‘Blasted’ is about the brutality of war; it brought the reality of war into the theatre. Obviously, war is obscene... so what you see on the stage is also obscene. There is portrayal of rape, and – at its most shocking – there is a scene where a hungry journalist eats a dead baby. It’s disturbing, yes, but these are things that do happen in war...

The censors argued that ‘the best way to judge a play is by reading the script’. That’s like saying, ‘the best way to judge a cake is by reading the recipe’

They also happen in war movies, and films in general. Yet the reaction is markedly different when violence and depravity are portrayed on screen, rather than on stage. Do you think it has something to do with the fact that theatre involves live actors – with all the immediacy that involves – and is produced locally, whereas films are foreign imports, over which we have no control?

For one thing, KRS [Film Distributors] are more powerful than the theatre. Censors were at the time more cautious with film distributors, than with theatre producers. I think that’s the main difference, because – to give an example from ‘Stitching’ itself – one of the main objections was that a character swears. He says ‘Jesus Fucking Christ’. How many times have we heard that in films, or on TV? How many times have we heard similar things at the stadium? Yet in his ruling, the judge said that ‘I can’t allow swearing, even if it’s part of a play.’ [Pause] I mean, how stupid is that..?

In fact, the European Court rejected that argument outright...

Completely. Another thing I found very strange was that the censors refused to watch the play. They only read the script. They even argued that ‘the best way to judge a play is by reading the script’. That’s like saying, ‘the best way to judge a cake is by reading the recipe’. And we did tell them: it plays differently from how it reads. But they still refused. This leads me to two possible conclusions: either the censors were corrupt, or they were incompetent. Personally I have no doubt that they were not corrupt...

What do mean by ‘corrupt’, in this context?

Not in the money sense; in the sense that they were guided by dishonest or malicious purposes. I don’t think that’s the case, however. But competence? That’s a different story. How competent is it to judge a play only by reading it? Or to object to swearing in the theatre?

The latter objection would wipe out half Shakespeare’s opus...

... and most, if not all, of the new or contemporary playwrights. Mark Ravenhill, Sarah Kane, Anthony Nielson, Philip Ridley: you wouldn’t be able to put up any of their plays. They all feature strong language. And that’s all ‘Stitching’ had, at the end of the day. Strong language. There is no nudity, no sex, no violence...

Nonetheless, all those playwrights have a reputation for being controversial. Sometimes, controversy may be a necessary component of a living piece of theatre... but there is also criticism that some of it may be gratuitous, or provocative merely for its own sake. You get that criticism a lot: isn’t there a kernel of truth to it?

I would say that, if I have a tendency to stage that kind of theatre, it is because it speaks to me more. I think it’s more real, more hard-hitting, more effective. I also think it’s more intimate. It is theatre that has something to say. My own preference is for the kind of play that makes you leave the theatre with something on your mind. I don’t mean, however, that theatre should be educational. Theatre should be fun. You go to the theatre to enjoy yourself. One of my major headaches is that, when I ask people if they go to the theatre, they often say: ‘I don’t... but I should’. [Pause] Why should you? You go to the theatre if you want to; not because ‘you should’. It’s not educational; theatre is meant to be entertainment. If you can also get something out of it, apart from the fun... so much the better. Having said that, ‘fun’ doesn’t have to be ‘comedy’. It can also be engaging. That, in a nutshell, is my philosophy on theatre. It has to be engaging...

‘Theatre has a lot of power over the people involved in it: I can safely say it has completely changed my own perspective on life’

Coming back to ‘Stitching’: another objection was that the play involved a discussion on abortion. This is an area where public discourse has changed a lot since then. There is now even a women’s rights organisation calling for legal access to abortion in certain circumstances, which was unheard of in 2009. Do you think the time is now more ripe for these issues to be tackled on stage?

It is still difficult to have a rational discussion on a subject as emotive as abortion. But at least we’re discussing it more now. Obviously, nothing much will change just by staging a play. But if it helps to get people to discuss the issue, maybe we’ll start dealing with it a bit more maturely. With regard to abortion, however, I don’t think we’re at that stage yet. There is more openness to discuss it, but I think it’s still too minimal to actually create a change. So far, the Church has been very successful in portraying abortion as the ultimate evil: that there is no worse thing you can do. That mindset is still very strong. But I don’t want to give the impression that ‘Stitching’ is uniquely about abortion. Abortion is an issue that is raised in the play, but ‘Stitching’ is primarily about a woman and a man trying to pick up the remains of their relationship, and trying to make it work again...

What did fighting the case – first in the local courts, then at the European Court – actually entail for you personally?

Well, we were fighting against both Church and State. Technically, it was the State that banned the play; but the Church, at one point, got involved in the court case, by discrediting one of our main witnesses. Fr Joe Abela, at the time, was chairman of the Diocesan Film Commission. He testified in our favour, and immediately the following day, the Church had him removed from the DFC, and dissociated itself from him altogether. As for the legal battle itself, the really stressful part was fighting it in the Maltese courts, not in Europe. It took its toll, to be honest. Financially, we paid for the cases out of our own pockets; even though we got most of the money – not all – refunded by order of the European Court. But it also took its toll on my health. On a personal note, I ended up seeing a psychiatrist, and was prescribed medication for stress and anxiety. Now, we’re moving out of it, slowly. But it takes time...

Given all the stress and inconvenience: has the experience changed your approach to theatre production in any way? Would you agree, for instance, that your output has been less deliberately provocative since ‘Blasted’?

Not really, no. Two of the last plays I wrote – ‘Unintended’ and ‘Collapse’ – were quite ‘in your face’, too. Having said this, in a sense I suppose I have ‘mellowed down’ a bit. In February, I’ll be staging probably my last ‘controversial’ play, because I’m getting a little tired of the same circuit. I want to do some classics. I want to do Shakespeare, for instance, or Greek theatre. And I want to concentrate more on local playwrights. I’ve done the contemporary international playwrights; especially the British ones. I started out in theatre to produce plays by Edward Bond and Mark Ravenhill; and through them I discovered Philip Ridley, Sarah Kane, Brad Birch and others. Edward Bond, in particular, has been a very big inspiration to me; I also commissioned him to write a play for Maltese theatre ‘The Price of One’. But I’ve done all that, and now I’d like to try my hand at something different. So yes, I have changed a bit since then the whole ‘Stitching’ issue 10 years ago... but it’s because I’ve felt the need to change myself, not because of that experience in itself. I have always staged what I wanted to stage; I never gave much importance to what other people said...

It remains questionable, however, whether the theatre – in general – is still the vehicle for social change that it once was. Historically, there was a time when ‘the stage’ provided people’s only point of contact with both culture and entertainment. Today, people are constantly exposed to other stimuli: we live our lives surrounded by screens, which bombard us with images, video-clips, and other snippets of information or entertainment. Does the theatre still have the power to arrest audiences, in such an over-stimulated world?

Theatre has changed me, that’s for sure. But I’m a practitioner. Whether theatre still has that sort of power over audiences in general, however... to be honest, I don’t know. The censors certainly thought it did; and those who were in favour of the ‘Stitching’ ban, certainly believed that theatre was powerful enough to radically change people’s entire outlook. When we went on Xarabank to defend the play in 2009, for example, there was one panel member who vociferously argued that people who watched ‘Stitching’ might go out and rape a woman after leaving the theatre. Just by seeing the play. And she was pretty adamant about it, too. So yes, there are definitely people who believe that theatre does have a lot of power. I happen to agree with them, but on a very different level. Theatre has a lot of power over the people involved in it: I can safely say it has completely changed my own perspective on life. People who regularly go to the theatre, too, will experience a shift in perspective... because they are exposed to new ideas, and to different points of view. Naturally, it depends on the type of theatre you watch, and what sort of subtext it offers. If you watch a play by Edward Bond or Harold Pinter – to name but two – you will be exposing yourself to great minds. Just like reading, it’s going to educate you. So I would say theatre does still have power; at least over the people who come into contact with it.

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