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.
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.
The play Stitching is an insult to human dignity from beginning to end, the chairman of the Classification Board insisted
The play 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.
Teresa 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.
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 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
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
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.
No such 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.
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 General.
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.
One 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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?
Malta cannot be compared to other European Union members states like the UK, Germany and Italy, because our country has sound values and high morals which should not be lost.
So argued representatives of the Attorney General's office during the penultimate hearing in the appeal against a ban on Stitching , Anthony Nielsen's award-winning drama, given a 14 certificate in the UK, but deemed too immoral and
obscene to be staged in Malta by the Film and Stage Classification Board.
But Prof. Kenneth Wain, who lectures ethics at the University of Malta argues that censorship laws like Malta's are an indication of moral weakness rather than strength.
The AG's remark is unfortunate. It is both offensive to the other countries mentioned, as well as contradictory. If our society has such 'sound values and high morals', we don't need draconian laws to protect it with.
The fact that we have these laws means that the AG and others who sustain them have no confidence in the values and morality of the people.
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.
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 Classification Board.
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.
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 Criminal Code.
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.
Unifaun's production 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.
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 sexual servitude
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 public decency.
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
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.
So now the play has opened, was it really that bad?
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.