The audience is silent. They’ve just witnessed two actors abuse each other on stage. Abby and Stewart are a couple. They’re in love, but it’s complicated. They’re shouting at each other, they kiss in the heat of the argument, but it is not tender. They are rough with each other. They are shouting. Everyone watching is stunned. While Abby is on the floor, Stewart grabs a dildo from near the sofa and shoves it down her throat and nobody in the audience knows how to react. Abby cries, Stewart gets up, and they carry on to the next scene; the pros and cons of having a baby.
Unless you've been boycotting social media for the past few weeks, or living under a rock, you've probably been seeing lots of promo and news coverage for the play Stitching, that started its two-weekend run on Friday. The theatre scene in Malta is rapidly growing, and we're lucky to often have multiple performances going on at the same time. 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 Anthony Nielson, asking for permission to produce his play Stitching here in Malta, under his company Unifaun Theatre Productions. Now, for those of you not familiar with Unifaun's work, they've become quite notorious for producing some rather... edgy plays. In fact, that same month (October 2008), they produced Sarah Kane's infamous play Blasted; a play that caused near riots when it premiered in the UK.
Fast-forward a couple of months and Nielson has granted Unifaun the rights to a performance of Stitching in Malta. Buckle books a slot at a local theatre, hires Chris Gatt to direct the piece, and actors Pia Zammit and Mikhail Basmadijan. He also, as is protocol, puts forth an application to the Board for Film and Stage Classification in order 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.
But what is the fuss really all about? Why was the play banned in the first place, and why was Unifaun so adamant to perform it?
An infringement of basic human rights...
We all know that freedom of speech is one of our basic human rights. And we also all know that it has been quite a point of contention on the Maltese islands over the past year. But the Stitching team have been fighting this freedom of speech battle for a while.
As mentioned earlier, when Adrian Buckle first received the news that the Board had decided to ban Stitching from production, the chairperson Therese Friggieri didn't give them any reasons. However, the team over at Unifaun would not stand for this; they chased for an answer, and in January 2009 the police commissioner delivered a letter that detailed the reasons:
"1. Blasphemy against the State Religion – pages 10 and 17
2. Obscene contempt for the victims of Auschwitz – page 2
3. An encyclopaedic review of dangerous sexual perversions leading to sexual servitude – pages 33, 34 and several others
4. Abby's eulogy to the child murderers Fred and Rosemary West – page 3
5. Reference to the abduction, sexual assault and murder of children – page 36
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."
It's a lot - blasphemy and child murderers? In one play? Shocking. But let's break things down.
So, when Unifaun applied for an age rating, they sent the Board a copy of the script for assessment. The Board then read the play, saw phrases such as "Jesus f*cking Christ" and a description of Two Girls One Cup and just noped their way to the decision to ban it.
Now at this point you're probably thinking: "It was 2008 and Malta can barely handle these things now, why is it so shocking that they banned it back then?" Well, let's take you on a trip back in time, all the way back to 1976.
A guy in the UK, Richard Handyside (yes, that's a real surname), publishes a schoolbook for kids - there's a 26-page section all about 'sex', the book was censored, Handyside was fined, he took the UK to the European Court for Human Rights... it was all very dramatic. Long story short, Handyside wins the case and its conclusion left us with a very famous comment on Article 10 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms stating that:
"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."
Quick reminder that this was in 1976 - THIRTY years before the Board in Malta decided to ban a performance because it made them uncomfortable. They made a decision that denied a group of creatives one of their fundamental rights as European Citizens, and this decision was thirty years out of date. All because they read a script that upset them.
But scripts are meant to be performed, not read.
When Anthony Nielson writes a stage direction that says Stewart shows Abby a picture of a girl who had 'stitched her vagina closed' or that 'Abby and Stewart have sex', that is not to say that the director has to follow the directions word for word, they're open to interpretation. Just like how when William Shakespeare writes that Romeo 'Exits stage right', the director can make their own choice as to how Romeo exits – if they want Romeo to exit by moonwalking, that's up to them.
Case in point; when it got to staging the scene where Stewart shows Abby a bunch of graphic images, director Chris Gatt opted to use plain red papers instead of photographs (quite meta when you think about the fact that they censored an image in a once-censored play). And the scene where Abby and Stewart have violent sex on stage was interpreted through a physical routine that only hinted towards sexual acts (excluding the dildo bit; that may have been a bit more than a hint).
This all raises the question as to if the Board was right to ban a play without watching it first? That would be like banning a painting after just reading a description of it, no? In fact, Unifaun carried on with rehearsals for a while in 2008 and performed it to small, invited audiences. They invited Therese Friggieri to attend, in an attempt to convince her to lift the ban, however they never received a response from her.
So, was it really that bad?
The short answer: no. The long answer: also no.
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.
Art is not always supposed to be pleasant. Art is sometimes meant to question and problematise, it is meant to tackle issues head-on. The characters in the play are trying to pick up the pieces of their relationship following a traumatic event. They are hurt and have had troubling pasts, and that is why they act the way they do and say what they say. Nothing in the play is there to hurt or shock, but rather to help the characters express their pain and hurt. Anthony Nielson said that the play's meaning does not lie in its "violence", but rather "in its last, fragile moment of hope", where the futures of the characters may take any path. The play deals with raw, human emotions that are at the highest of cruxes. The characters are in a bad place, but to argue that there is no shred of positivity in the play is to argue that there is no hope for anyone in a bad place.
Stitching is on for one more weekend at the Manoel Theatre's studio theatre, and you can book tickets here. To quote Adrian Buckle directly, I do suggest you attend Stitching, "see what the fuss was all about. Feel free to leave if the characters offend you. But never try to impose your will or morality on that of other".
Will you be watching Stitching this weekend?
Cover image photos by Darrin Zammit Lupi