European Court overturns Malta court ban on Anthony Nielsen play Stitching

Unifaun Theatre awarded €20,000 in legal costs and moral damages after European Court of Human Rights overturns Maltese court's decision to uphold censorship board's ban

Unifaun theatre director Adrian Buckle
Unifaun theatre director Adrian Buckle

The European Court of Human Rights has overturned the Maltese courts' decision to ban the play Stitching, eight years after the controversial judgment upheld a ban by the now-defunct censorship board.

The controversial play, written by Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson, has been performed in several countries. But its 2009 ban in Malta prompted an uproar over censorship, to the extent that former Culture Minister Mario de Marco moved a law for the self-regulation of theatre productions.

In the first judgement, Justice Joseph Zammit McKeon had said the censorship board acted correctly that the values of a country could not be turned on their head simply in the name of freedom of expression. He said it was unacceptable in a "democratic society founded on the rule of law" for any person, no matter what they did, to be allowed to swear in public - even in a theatre as part of a script.

The two-actor play is about a couple struggling to deal with the loss of their child.

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.

"Justice has prevailed," producer Adrian Buckle said, adding that the play will now be staged in Malta.

Unifaun's production's ban was confirmed by the Constitutional Court of Appeal, after it was flagged by the now defunct Film and Stage Classification Board.

The Maltese court had ignored the producers' arguments that Anthony Neilson's play about a couple coming to terms with the loss of a child had been taken out of context and requested to perform it in court on the grounds that a script is a work of art that is only half-formed, and needs actors to give it meaning. 


The Labour government subsequently changed the censorship laws, effectively stopping the possibility of theatrical productions being banned.

Lawyers Ian Refalo, Sarah Grech and Michael Zammit Maempel represented the producers.