Ten years since the play was supposed to tread the boards – and with the European Court of Human Rights’ approval for it to go ahead – Jo Caruana speaks to playwright Anthony Nielson about his experience of this landmark censorship case.
I can vividly remember the incredulity I felt when Stitching was banned in 2009; it was absolute madness. Here was a play in its final days of the production process when, suddenly, the (now defunct) local Film and Stage Classification Board banned it from going ahead.
It was a decision that sparked outrage from theatregoers and international theatre critics, while thrusting producer Adrian Buckle into a 10-year court case. Ultimately it would lead the European Court of Human Rights to overthrow that decision and allow it to be staged.
It has been a long 10 years. At the centre of all this was playwright Anthony Nielson, the man behind Stitching. Somewhat surprisingly, he found himself cast into the spotlight of newspaper articles and court cases – a fight very much fought by Adrian and his team, but with Anthony’s support.
I find myself wondering how it feels to know his play had a role in overcoming censorship in Malta.
“Well, it’s a brilliant anecdote, isn’t it?” he laughs. “Sounds very impressive. But all the credit has to go to Adrian and everybody who worked with him to these ends. I am just in awe of their tenacity and courage. I like to think I’d have fought as hard in their position but I can’t be sure I would’ve. It takes a special kind of drive and focus to do that over so many years. I feel privileged to have, at least, provided a focal point in that battle; along with no doubt many other artists there who have had their rights of expression suppressed.”
Looking back, Anthony confesses he could never have foreseen the controversy that would stem from Buckle choosing to produce his play. “It’s always an honour when someone deems your play worthy of their time and investment, but I had absolutely no idea of the circumstances in Malta at the time.
I really don’t think that modern audiences will find the content especially shocking
“For me, an atheist living in the UK, I have to admit that it felt a little quaint at first – like one of those minor outrages that occasionally flares up even here in the UK. But, as it unfolded, I realised it was a good deal more sinister, politically.”
Neilson did actually visit Malta at one point to testify in a court hearing, where he had to defend the morality of his play. “It was both bizarre and strangely exciting,” he recalls. “Like Adrian, I rather relish taking on those who deem themselves the arbiters of morality. I remember being shocked to discover that many of the theatres in Malta were owned by the Church. That’s never a healthy situation: art should question the status quo, not promote it.”
Today, Anthony actually struggles to remember why he wrote Stitching exactly, or how to explain it succinctly. He recalls a feeling of grief with no real event to attach it to and a lot of confusion and anger around sexuality, for various reasons. “You can’t write about ‘sex’ because it’s not a thing,” he says. “It’s a language and it’s used to express many different things. Stitching is about grief and guilt and how one couple uses their sexuality as a means of punishing both themselves and each other.”
As many know, it is a play that follows Abby and Stu (performed by Pia Zammit and Mikhail Basmadjian respectively) as they pick apart their relationship, stitch by stitch, when they discover they are expecting a child. While their journey is brutal, dark and savage, the play’s intimacy and tenderness has maintained its popularity for audiences worldwide. In fact, it has been performed from New York to Turkey to Israel (and only got banned in Malta).
Now Neilson just hopes that those watching it in this new production can separate the play itself from the struggle around it. “I really don’t think that modern audiences will find the content especially shocking,” he says. “There was a basic lack of logic and reason in the attacks upon it by the State, which was nothing to do with morality and everything to do with power.
“So if people feel a sense of anti-climax – if they wonder what the fuss was – they should try not to blame the play for the rather silly and ignorant reaction to it. I knew the material was strong but I didn’t write it simply to shock people. It’s no use to me when people walk away offended; I want them to think about why they’re offended, if they are, and what the play says about the frailty of the human condition. In some ways, I think it might actually be the most moral play I’ve written. I really believe that. Either way, I very much look forward to travelling to Malta to finally see it on stage later this month,” he adds.
Stitching will be performed at the Manoel Theatre Studio Theatre on September 14, 15, 16, 19, 21 and 23. It will be directed by Chris Gatt. Tickets are available online.
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