Malta's Unifaun Theatre stages the play Stitching, a decade after it was banned, which set in motion a rewrite of the country's censorship laws
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The play Stitching , has opened at the Unifaun Theatre in Malta for a two week run. But Stitching is not your average piece of theatre; it's taken 10 years, international coverage, and even a literal EU court case to get this show up and running.
Ten years ago, in October 2008, local theatre producer Adrian Buckle sent an email to playwright Anthony Nielson, asking for permission to produce his play Stitching in Malta. Nielson duly granted Unifaun the rights to a performance of his play.
Buckle booked a slot at a local theatre, hires the cast and informs the Board for Film and Stage Classification in order expecting to be issued an age-rating certificate for the piece. However, instead of receiving an age certification, Buckle received a
certificate that simply stated the play had been Banned and disallowed, with no explanation or reason provided. Thus begins a ten-year-long battle that finally brings us to this year's production.
However, the team at Unifaun would not stand for
this lack of explanation; they chased for an answer, and in January 2009 the police commissioner delivered a letter that detailed the reasons:
- Blasphemy against the State Religion
- Obscene contempt for the victims of Auschwitz
- An encyclopaedic review of dangerous sexual perversions leading to
- Abby's eulogy to the child murderers Fred and Rosemary West
- Reference to the abduction, sexual assault and murder of children
In conclusion, the play is a sinister tapestry of violence and perversion where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. The Board feels that in this case the envelope has been pushed beyond the limits of
The censorship became major news in Malta and it was decided by the politicians at the time that the established censorship system was no longer compatible with EU human rights requirements, notably Article 10
of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights:
Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of such a society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every
man [...] it is applicable not only to 'information' or 'ideas' that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.
The country's censorship laws were rewritten without calling on the services of stage censors. Film censorship was also reformed with new rules that are based on the UK's, which is at least significantly more free than before.
now the play has opened, was it really that bad? lovinmalta.com answers:
Yes, the play is crude. Yes, they swear a lot. Yes, they talk about child murderers. Yes, they use a dildo on stage. Yes, they describe sexual acts very explicitly. Yes, it probably made people very uncomfortable. That is
why performances are given an age certification. That is not reason to censor and an artist.
Three performances have passed so far and the world has not ended. Nobody has walked out of the theatre mid-performance in a fit of rage.
European court overrules a Maltese ban on staging the play Stitching my Anthony Nelson
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The European Court of Human Rights has overturned the Maltese courts' decision to ban the play Stitching, eight years after the controversial judgment had incensed the local artistic scene.
The ECHR awarded €10,000 as legal costs as well as
€10,000 in moral damages jointly to Unifaun Theatre Productions Limited, as well as director Chris Gatt and actors Pia Zammit and Mike Basmadjian. The court's decision was unanimous, including Maltese judge Vincent de Gaetano.
had been banned in 2010 by the Maltese court, a decision confirmed by the Constitutional Court of Appeal, after it was flagged by the now defunct Film and Stage Classification Board.
The Maltese court had ruled in 2010 that it was unacceptable in
a democratic society founded on the rule of law for any person to be allowed to swear in public, even in a theatre as part of a script. He pointed out that the country's values could not be turned upside down in the name of freedom of expression.
The censorship of Stitching had a knock on effect to media censorship in Malta. The government had in 2012 changed the censorship laws , effectively stopping the possibility of theatrical productions being banned and lightening up on film censorship bringing it more in line with other European countries.
Maltese culture secretary proposes to exempt art and performance from morality and blasphemy laws
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Theatrical and artistic performances In Malta look set to be exempted from morality and blasphemy laws under amendments soon to be discussed in Cabinet.
Culture Parliamentary Secretary Jose' Herrera said that he expected to receive Cabinet backing for
the proposals because the removal of censorship was one of our [electoral] pledges .
Asked to explain what amendments were being proposed, Dr Herrera said artistic and theatrical performances would be made exempt from ordinary crimes
related to morality in the Criminal Code. This included blasphemy laws, he confirmed.
The amendments were necessary because currently the police could impede any performance deemed to be in breach of the Criminal Code, Dr Herrera pointed out:
The people should be the judge of artistic merit, not the police.
Age classification rules will remain in place. Exemptions will only apply to performances in designated spaces , such as art galleries. However pornographic cinemas
will not be covered by the changes, Dr Herrera said.
Last year the official theatre censors were disbanded but theatre producer Adrian Buckle said those changes did not go far enough as performances could still fall foul of morality laws in the
Maltese theatre company goes to European Court to content ban on the play, Stitching
A Maltese theatre company had planned to stage the play Stitching by Anthony Neilson. However the play was banned by the theatre censors. The controversy has resulted in the theatre censors being disbanded, but the play is still banned in the
country. The legal dispute is continuing, now heading towards the highest court in Europe.
Unifaun Theatre Productions have now taken the case of the banned play Stitching to the European Court of Human Rights. This is in response to the
Constitutional Court of Appeal upheld a ban on performing the production last November.
Unifaun had planned to stage the play at St James Cavalier in Valletta in 2009 but it was banned by the now defunct Film and Stage Classification Board. The
board banned the play because of what it perceived as blasphemy, contempt for Auschwitz victims, dangerous sexual perversions, a eulogy to child murderers and references to the abduction, sexual assault and murder of children contained in the script.
The company said it was turning to the ECHR having exhausted all domestic judicial remedies.
Maltese Constitutional Court upholds ban on the play Stitching
|13th December 2012
See article from
Shocked producers of the play Stitching will take their case to the European Court of Human Rights after Malta's Constitutional Court of Appeal upheld a ban on performing the production.
The judgment came the day before two enabling
legal notices were due to be published in support of a new law abolishing state theatre censorship.
Theatre company Unifaun had planned to stage it at St James Cavalier in Valletta in 2009 but it was banned by the now defunct Film and Stage
Without watching a performance, the board banned Stitching because of what it perceived as blasphemy, contempt for Auschwitz victims, dangerous sexual perversions, a eulogy to child murderers and references to the abduction,
sexual assault and murder of children contained in the script.
The theatre company strongly contested the ban as a violation of the right to freedom of expression. They took their case to civil court in 2010 which ruled that the ban was justified,
prompting another appeal by Unifaun, culminating in the Constitutional Court judgment.
Both the Civil Court and the Constitutional Court upheld the ban without viewing a performance.
A country who can't even stage well respected plays without censor hassle, seeks to become the European Capital of
Internationally acclaimed playwright Brad Fraser has joined local artists in questioning whether a country that bans plays and prosecutes writers for obscene literature deserves consideration for European Capital of Culture 2018.
Fraser, whose critically acclaimed works include Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love , argues that countries which actively censor plays and other works of art or literature should be disqualified from such accolades.
There is no place for artistic censorship in a civilized society. Any country that stifles the alternative ways of looking at the world is undeserving of any creative recognition at all. Adults are completely capable of
deciding for themselves what they do or don't want to see. Censorship is the first sign of a corrupt regime.
Fraser's objections are largely connected to the controversial ban on Andrew Nielson's play Stitching in 2009: deemed
too offensive to be staged locally by Malta's Stage and Film Classification Board (though less than a year later, the same play was staged with a 14+ age certificate at Edinburgh's Fringe Festival).
Other recent examples include productions
like Christopher Durang's Laughing Wild , Howard Brenton's Paul , The Reduced Shakespeare's Company's The Abridged Bible , Patrick Marber's Closer and A Day In the Death of Joe Egg by Peter Nichols, all of which have
suffered at the hands of the national censors.
After banning an 'obscene' play, Malta notices it being performed in Edinburgh with just a 14 rating
Based on article from
Stitching , the play banned from being staged in Malta last year, is set to be performed at the popular Edinburgh Fringe Festival next month with a 14 rating.
A spokesman for the Fringe told The Sunday Times it was the performers
themselves who gave an age rating to the works they staged, but these were just guidelines .
When it first was staged at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2002, The Guardian reported that some audience members had walked out of Anthony Nielson's
play, which focuses on a couple dealing with the loss of a child.
Chris Gatt, director of the Maltese production, said he was not surprised at the self-imposed 14 rating: It proves what we've said all along. It was an entire fuss for
nothing. Obscenity is in the eyes of the beholder, not in the script - and this is why plays like Stitching keep being performed.
He said he could not understand why Scottish audiences should be subjected to a different cultural and
moral benchmark than the Maltese. Citing as examples local plays like Chat Room (which was given a 16 rating in Malta, when it is meant to be performed by, and for, 14-year-olds), he said local classification needed a radical overhaul. In
several countries, not only had stage censorship long been abolished, but so had classification.
Writing in The Times, Culture Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco underlined the need to find a way of better protecting the freedom of artistic
expression: Do our laws reflect 21st century realities? Are they too draconian in nature, giving perhaps too much power to the Classification Board?
Judges offended by the play Stitching banned in Malta
article from timesofmalta.com
Malta's Civil Court has found that the Film and Stage Classification Board did not violate freedom of expression when it banned the play Stitching last year.
The play, penned by Scottish writer Anthony Neilson, addresses such themes as
death and abortion.
The case was instituted by Adrian Buckle, Christopher Gatt, Maria Pia Zammit, Mikhail Basmadjian and Unifaun Theatre Productions Ltd against Teresa Friggieri, the prime minister, the Police commissioner and the Attorney
The producers had pleaded that the banning of the play, in January last year, violated their fundamental right of freedom of expression.
They also pointed out that the script of the play was freely available in Malta and the play
had been staged in many other European countries.
They called for the classification of banned to be replaced by another classification which would enable the play to be staged.
But the court said it had no hesitation in saying that
the decision of the board was correct and according to law:
There was nothing unreasonable in the board having viewed the play as being offensive to the culture of this country in its broadest sense.
It was not proper, even in a democratic and pluralistic society as is Malta's, for the lows of human dignity to be exalted even on the pretext of showing how a couple could survive a storm.
could not make extensive use of language which was vulgar, obscene and blasphemous and which exalted perversion and undermined the right to life. Neither could one undermine the dignity of women including the victims of the holocaust, reduce women to a
simple object of sexual gratification, and ridicule the family.
A civil, democratic, and tolerant society could not allow its values to be turned upside down simply because there was freedom of expression.
The court said the board was right to view the play as exalting perversion as if it was acceptable behaviour. Bestiality, the stitching up of a vagina as an act of sexual pleasure and having a woman eat somebody else's excrement,
rape and infanticide were unacceptable, even in a democratic society.
Furthermore, the fact that a person was allowed to blaspheme in public, even on stage, went against the law.
court therefore found that there had been no violation of fundamental human rights as enshrined in the Constiuttion and the European Convention of Human Rights when the play was banned.
article from timesofmalta.com
The producers of the play Stitching have declared that they will appeal from a Court judgment which upheld a decision by the Stage and Film Classification Board to ban the production.
The ban had caused an uproar, sparking months
of discussion. The play's producers, Unifaun, had claimed their freedom of expression was being denied but the court yesterday disagreed. They have said they would, if necessary, even take the case before the European Court.
An Affront to Freedom
Based on article from
Malta's Front Against Censorship has lashed out at the court's decision to ban the play Stitching , saying that the play does not offend public
morals because blasphemy and vulgar language are now part and parcel of adult plays.
The group argued that banning the play verges on the ludicrous, because people know beforehand what they are letting themselves in for before attending the play.
In a statement, the group further criticised one of the court's decisions to ban the play because its plotline does not fit with attitudes and values typical of Maltese society. Since the play was classified as containing adult material, banning the play
outright, when it has been performed in a host of other countries, is discriminatory and unacceptable, the group argued.
Front Against Censorship concluded by calling on a new legislation which would clear the air on what theatrical performances
and works of art in Malta can and should be censored, and what should not.
Maltese anti-censorship group protest in Valletta
Based on article from
See also Anti-censorship group nominated for EU award from
Many with red crosses painted on their mouths, a crowd of about 300 people, including politicians and personalities from various cultural fields, walked down Valletta's main thoroughfare to protest against censorship in a Maltese society that does not
tolerate what is out of the norm .
Organised by 11 student organisations who came together to form the Front Against Censorship, the protest attracted a strong presence of actors, students, writers and theatre personalities.
here to make history. We believe that no one has the right to determine what other people can read, Ingram Bondin, from Front Against Censorship, said.
In the sight of the protest were five laws on censorship, which, the promoters insisted,
are antiquated and outdated and carry harsh prison sentences.
They are calling on the authorities to repeal the law banning anyone from making any form of artistic criticism of the country's official religion and to eliminate the Stage and
Film Classification Board's power to censor or ban plays and films.
They also want to remove a clause in the Press Act stipulating that print material cannot carry any criticism of public morals and to abolish the Broadcasting Authority's power to
ban adult programmes after 9 p.m.
The promoters of the protest also want to see changes to the Pornography Act which, they believe, contains a blanket definition of sex.
Malta's censors reveal their guidelines
article from maltatoday.com.mt
Malta's Board of Film and Stage Classification submitted in court a list of policy guidelines used by local censors to decide on ratings for films and theatre productions.
This was at the request of Mr Justice Joseph Zammit McKeon in the ongoing
Constitutional case regarding this year's ban on Stitching .
This is the first time that the board's internal policy guidelines have ever been made public, and what immediately leaps to the eye is an apparent contradiction between the
directions given to classifiers with regard to theatrical performances, and the way these same performances are classified in practice. In the section subtitled Stage Performances , the final sentence reads: As with films, the classifier must
take a decision after considering each work globally, as much for its visual impact, as for the message the work tries to put across. But members of the same board never watch a performance before deciding what rating to give a stage play. The reason
for this is that the classifiers' rating has to be issued before any play can be performed in a Maltese theatre: a fact which makes it physically impossible to rate any play on the basis of its visual impact. Instead, the censors limit themselves to
reading the script: which as a rule gives little or no indication of the play's effect on a visual level.
In fact, individual members of the censorship board have testified in court that they had not watched Andrew Nielsen's Stitching before deciding to ban it altogether. In justifying the ban, the Film and Stage Classification Board chairperson Theresa Friggiri cited four
taboo topics that led to the decision: blasphemy; obscene contempt for the victims of Auschwitz ; dangerous sexual perversions leading to sexual servitude ; and reference to the abduction, sexual assault and murder of children
... the latter including a eulogy to the child murderers, Fred and Rosemary West. However, it remains difficult to grasp how the censors could have reached this decision after considering the work globally, as much for its visual impact as for
the message it tried to get across .
The cinema section therefore features a number of specific criteria by which to rate a film. The criteria for film are: theme; language; violence; nudity; sex; horror; drugs; faith and religion. For each of
the five possible film ratings – U, PG, 12, 16, 18 – the application each criterion is re-evaluated for the age-group concerned. Language, for instance, is taken into consideration before giving as U certificate, but not for 18, and so on.
detail is provided in the theatre section, which by way of contrast occupies only the final few paragraphs of the entire document. This section, which loosely refers to film and theatre being different media which require different approaches, appears to
allow the Board maximum discretion in the absence of any clear guidelines whatsoever. A typical example concerns the guidelines for nudity on stage, which consist in a single sentence: While nudity may be permissible on film, this is not normally
accepted on stage. But the guidelines offer no indication of what circumstances may make nudity acceptable on stage.
Maltese opinion poll marginally goes against the censors
Based on article from
51.1% of Maltese people oppose the ban on Anthony Nielson's play Stitching imposed by the censorship board, with a majority stating they want the censorship board stripped of its power to determine what adults can watch.
This emerges from a
MaltaToday survey conducted among 300 respondents.
Stitching was banned by the censorship board chaired by Therese Friggieri on the grounds that it contains blasphemy against the state religion, contempt for the victims of Auschwitz and
references to the abduction, sexual assault and murder of children.
Update: Court Hearing
20th June 2009. See
article from timesofmalta.com
A priest told the Court this
morning he would have classified Anthony Nielson's play Stitching 18R, meaning all adults with reservations.
Fr Joe Abela, a member on the film analysis and classification board of the Church, was testifying in Unifaun Theatre's case and Malta's
decision to ban the play.
The next hearing is in September.
Update: Church Distances Itself from Abela's comment
23d June 2009. See
article from di-ve.com
Curia has distanced itself from the testimony given in court by Fr Joe Abela, chairman of the its film classification board, about the play Stitching , which was recently banned.
In a statement released on Monday, the Curia said that Fr
Abela was giving witness on his own behalf and on his own initiative and was not representing the board.
Malta's theatre censor bans the Neilson play, Stitching
The Maltese censorship board has banned a play by the Unifaun Theatre Company, which was scheduled for February.
The play, Stitching by Anthony Neilson, has been described by the Daily Telegraph as shocking , and by the Independent
as brave and Brutal.
It deals with a couple trying to piece together their relationship and is directed by Chris Gatt. Rehearsals have been underway for weeks now – and Unifaun artistic director Adrian Buckle lamented that the company is
considerably out of pocket, having paid for performing rights and other expenses, unable to wait any longer for the board's decision.
But it is not the financial implications of the Film and Theatre Classification Board's decision that has
disturbed him: I simply do not see why it should be banned because it is shocking. People know what to expect from our plays and it is certainly not as shocking of some of the others that made it through the censorship board. Nowhere else in Europe
are plays banned… This actually goes against European law.
A Council of Europe (CoE) report some years ago was highly critical of the face that there was still censorship in Malta, especially with regards to theatrical performances. The
report said such censorship was not consistent with the beliefs of the Council of Europe and those of the European Union, because it represented control over creative expression.
Unifaun is trying to appeal the decision. A reaction is
being sought from the board.
Update: Censor Unseen
15th February 2009. From timesofmalta.com
Speaking at a press conference this morning, director Chris Gatt and producer Adrian Buckle said the chairman of the Board of Film and Stage Classification, Therese Friggieri, never asked to see the play before banning it.
Mr Gatt said
that although words in the play may sound shocking , the production played out in a completely different manner.
They insisted that in this day and age, the ban on the play was an infringement of their rights.
The play is about a couple
in crisis coming to terms with a loss, and deals with themes that include death and abortion.
Update: Maltese Censor Insults Human Dignity
17th February 2009. From
The play Stitching is an insult to human dignity from beginning to end, the chairman of the Classification Board insisted
was banned by the board last month but the producers have said they will defy the ban.
Teresa Friggieri in a short statement this morning insisted that the play cannot be staged: The producers know they are breaking the law, it is their
business. They also know that legal proceedings which they themselves started, are now in progress, and they should at least have the decency to await the outcome of that process.
Friggieri said the reasons for the ban had been handed to the
producers' lawyers in writing. They were that: The play has graphic references to child abuse; the play includes anti-Semitic comments; it includes swearing; sadism and cruelty against innocent victims and other perversions.
Update: Decadent Censors
18th February 2009. From timesofmalta.com
Friggieri, chairman, said that although plays were normally assessed by one person, in this case it was reviewed by three people - Cecilia Xuereb, Dione Mifsud and herself, who decided it should be banned and disallowed.
After the producers
requested a review of the board's decision, Friggieri said the script was seen by another three persons - Marthese Scerri, Joe Camilleri and Tony Muscat who independently confirmed the original decision.
Friggieri said the board denied violating
the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights since freedom of expression was not absolute and was subject to several limitations in the interests of morality, and public decency. In this case, the script not only contained obscene
language, but in some cases it also offended religious sentiment. It included decadent material, shameful and perverted content of a sexual and sadomasochistic content and even paedophilia. It also included references to the Auschwitz victims which
exceeded all limits of public decency.
Update: Decadent Censors
22nd February 2009. From
The Unifaun Theatre Company is prepared to take its case against the banning of Stitching to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg if
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'.