Reduced Shakespeare Company Return

After the 'kerfuffle' in Newtownabbey, American theatre troupe return with The Complete History of Comedy (abridged): 'The theatre is our temple, and in our church all are welcome'

The US theatre company at the centre of an arts censorship row in Newtownabbey early last year is returning to the County Antrim town tonight with a new production.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC) found themselves embroiled in a freedom of expression furore that made international headlines following their near banning from Theatre at the Mill in January 2014.

​​An attempt to ban The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) was made, amid allegations from DUP councillors that the show was blasphemous and offensive to Christians. 

Thankfully, sense prevailed after various online and offline campaigns, and the production was reinstated – inevitably, it sold out.

The self-described 'bad boys of abridgement' are back in Northern Ireland to perform The Complete History of Comedy (abridged) in the same venue on April 16. 'We’re thrilled to be returning to Newtownabbey,' says RSC co-founder, Austin Tichenor.

'The furore last time over our production of The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) was ultimately heartening, because everyone we met in Newtownabbey thought the protest was as ridiculous as we did. 

'Obviously that excludes the small number of protesters we saw, who were so few you could count them on two hands and a foot. And if our production made it possible for other, more genuinely controversial works of art and entertainment to be seen, then we’re proud to have done our bit.'

Back in January, DUP Cllr Billy Ball made it clear his party would use a vote at a full council meeting​ to block​ the two RSC performances at Theatre at the Mill. ​A decision to cancel the play was then taken by the council’s artistic board.

The fear was that power to censor art at the Mossley Mill venue would thereafter be in the control of the DUP. But after a public backlash, the board ultimately reversed its decision ahead of the full council meeting, and both shows subsequently sold out and received five star reviews. All publicity, after all, is good publicity.

'Despite all the press and hype, we had a great time,' RSC actor Gary Fannin recalls. 'The audiences we had for those two nights were fantastic. There was a sense of victory for them, it seemed, that we were allowed to perform at all. We felt very supported.'

Responding to petty allegations that the RSC itself fuelled the fire in order to sell tickets, Fannin says: 'While I totally agree with freedom of expression and that it should be defended, we stayed out of the argument as much as possible. We didn't push for the show to be reinstated, and we only responded when the press asked us for our opinion. 

'I think many people thought we were pushing to get the show back on, but in many ways we just let the theatre's artistic board and the DUP hash it out themselves. We had other concerns, like getting the show ready for an audience. Remember, we were still in rehearsal stages at that point.' 

Tichenor reveals that the 'kerfuffle' in Newtownabbey has since become a talking point among RSC crew and fans over the last year. 

'The amazing thing is that no matter where we’ve performed in the last 15 months, audiences are familiar with the "kerfuffles" we had in Newtownabbey,' he says, evidence that the story was reported around the world, unfortunately showing Newtownabbey in a very bad light. 

'RSC audiences are made up of people of all faiths and backgrounds and colours from around the world,' Tichenor adds. 'The theatre is our temple, and in our church all are welcome. All you have to have is a sense of humour.'

Tickets are now available​ from Theatre at the Mill​ for The Complete History of Comedy (abridged), which doesn’t shy away from topical issues.

'But,' says Tichenor, 'I can assure the concerned citizens of Newtownabbey that there isn’t anything worth protesting in our newest show.

'Of course, there wasn’t any reason to protest our last show, either. In fact, in our new show we propose a solution to the millennia-old tensions between Muslims and Jews, so folks should come and check it out.'

The Complete History of Comedy (abridged) comes to Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey on April 16, Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick on April 17 and the Playhouse, Derry on April 18.