Censored no more – what is the future of Maltese theatre?

Following the relaxation of the censorship law, Stitching producer says he’ll probably stage the controversial play with an 18 rating.

Producer Adrian Buckle said he would give the play Stitching (pictured) an 18 rating, even if in the UK it was given a 14 rating.
Producer Adrian Buckle said he would give the play Stitching (pictured) an 18 rating, even if in the UK it was given a 14 rating.

The furore over censorship that marked 2009's ban on the play Stitching may have paid off, after Tourism and Culture minister Mario de Marco unveiled a draft law for the self-regulation of theatre productions last Tuesday.

With the appeal by Stitching producers Unifaun Theatre against a court decision upholding the ban of the controversial Anthony Nielson play yet to be heard next month, de Marco revealed that effectively, the classification of cultural products will no longer be under the Code of Police laws and will instead be brought under the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts Act. Stage and theatre classification practices will also be changed to allow theatre producers, directors (and sometimes, even venue-owners) to decide on age restrictions for individual productions.

Speaking to MaltaToday, Unifaun founder and Stitching producer Adrian Buckle welcomed the news, while expressing caution about applying international standards to local theatre age ratings.

"Most likely I will give it an 18 rating, even if in the UK it was given a 14 rating," Buckle said, when asked what decision he would take on the age restriction if the draft law - which will allow producers to choose their own age rating for theatrical productions - does in fact pass.

"When we get round to staging Stitching I will decide what rating to give it. It will most likely be a rating for mature audiences. I am basing this opinion on what I perceive as the maturity of our audiences," Buckle added.

Buckle's comments bring what is perhaps the most pertinent concern about the proposed amendments to the censorship law into focus - if producers will be given free reign over the ratings system, what's to stop them from staging something truly obscene, or offensive on a level that is inexcusable?

The law's the thing

Buckle's own take on the matter is that the law is enough of a safeguard. 

"The 'red lines' lie with the law. I would not kill a dog on stage because that is against the law (and because it is criminal). I won't stage a paedophile act or a scene with actual sex because it is against the law. I have always argued that the law regulates us enough. We don't need a censorship board to control us," Buckle said.

Similarly, Malta Council for Culture and the Arts chairman Adrian Mamo - who will be the first chairman of the guidelines board as soon as the bill is passed in parliament - made it clear that although the police will no longer have the power to directly intervene in local productions, the law as it stands will still apply.

"A cultural authority should not have policing power, and the new law should reflect this. But if, for example, a Neo-Nazi group stages a production that espouses racist views, the audience will be able to complain about it based on specific, firmly entrenched laws," Mamo said.

In a lot of ways the shift appears to be more bureaucratic than one of any significant, groundbreaking cultural change.

"My personal view is that this doesn't necessarily mark a change in culture, nor that Malta is suddenly becoming more liberal, or anything like that. We've had a good number of controversial productions being staged in Malta in the past, it's just that certain plays have been highlighted over others.

"The more pertinent matter is that the law itself was simply quite outdated, and the change is simply overdue - it's not a matter of cultural shift," Mamo said.

Similarly, Therese Friggeri, former member of the now-defunct Board of Film and Classification, clearly stated that any action taken by the Board itself is (or was) first and foremost dictated by the law.

"In the past we've always made our decisions according to the law. Now, the law will change. New rules will be applied. I'm sure the new board members will do exactly as we did - follow the law," Friggieri said.

However theatre director Wesley Ellul pointed out that the previous censorship law wasn't nearly a comprehensive enough safeguard against blasphemy, obscenity or any other potentially risqué artistic move.

"The previous system made no sense because it rated productions based on the script alone. One could have found the most innocent piece and made it into a censor's monster. When I directed Spring Awakening I was given a 16 rating based on the script. The UK production, which was rated 14, contained  scenes of teenage nudity. Had I gone down that road the censors would have never known, because the script doesn't tell a director what to do," Ellul said.

Artistic liberation?

Veteran playwright and director Alfred Buttigieg - known for the highly controversial Rewwixta tal-Qassin from 1986s, and whose upcoming play Dwar Menopawsi, Minorenni u Muturi High Speed will be staged at St James Cavalier next week - expressed a more 'intimate' side to the censorship debacle, which would perhaps have been one of the more insidious ways that the previous laws would have impinged on cultural life in Malta.

"It works on you... even though my upcoming play is hardly obscene, as I was writing it I was often fearful that it might be stopped by censors. I've read the script to Stitching and I didn't find anything particularly obscene of blasphemous in it, so you begin to wonder what the censors' benchmarks really are," Buttigieg said. While Dwar Menopawsi... was given an 18 rating under the current regulations, Buttigieg hoped that it would have gone with a 16. However, he still welcomed the new amendments.

"Of course we still have to see what the guidelines will be like, but shifting the responsibility onto the producers is quite a bold move, actually," Buttigieg said.

Buckle does not think that Unifaun's production schedule will change in any way now that censorship has been lifted.

"I will stage what I believe will be the best play for the moment," Buckle said, revealing that Unifaun's upcoming productions will be a comedy - The Female of the Species - which will in fact be followed by a more hard-hitting piece, Olly's Prison, by controversial British playwright Edward Bond.

"It is a play about the Justice system and features some violence but it is all done in good taste and with a goal in mind. Nothing is gratuitous. Other than that I am considering some comedies and some dramas but before I choose I have to find the right directors and the right actors. That is what crosses my mind when I choose a play, not whether it is shocking or not," Buckle said.

Wait and see

While welcome, the bill is obviously not yet a law. This not only makes the relevant parties cautiously optimistic... some have also questioned the timing of the amendments.

"The only shame is the timing, being surrounded by several other new government proposals which favour the voting public - like the ground rent scheme and the Paceville revamp - all just before the a vote of confidence in parliament," Ellul said.

"One naturally remains sceptical about why these necessary reforms are only happening now, although they are welcome," Buttigieg said.

The issue was further politicised last week, when Labour MP Owen Bonnici said that an overhaul of the censorship laws was incomplete if the laws regarding 'obscene' materials were not changed too - a specific reference to the ongoing case of student pamphlet Ir-Realta, whose then-editor was accused of disseminating obscene material after he published a short story by Alex Vella Gera - and claimed that Labour was "on the right side of history" on the matter.

In response, the tourism and culture ministry said that Labour's claims were flawed, given the party's historical censorship of PN media.

Labour MP Adrian Vassallo, known for his conservative views on the matter, refused to comment on the issue when contacted by this newspaper.

Yet another step in an election campaign. And the PM says he is not in an election mood. Given some more time, he may even give us that cut in the Income Tax bands, who knows.