A stitch out of time

Now that all the dust has finally settled, ‘Stitching’ can be seen for what it ultimately was all along: a low-key, somewhat Spartan play, focusing only on the strain an unplanned pregnancy places on a relationship that is already close to breaking point

So we came to it at last: the great anticlimax of our age. Years before Unifaun Productions were finally able to stage Anthony Nielson’s ‘Stitching’, I had a vague feeling that the play would not live up to the nefarious expectations raised by the original 2009 ban.

Well, last Saturday I made my way to the theatre to judge for myself (after producer Adrian Buckle was kind enough to treat me to a complimentary ticket); and as I expected, there was hardly anything to even write home about in the entire one-and-a-half hour production... let alone kick up the mother of all moral controversies, and flush the entire principle of freedom of speech down the drain in the process.

At moments, I even thought I was watching a censored version. Where were all the objectionable parts? The censors had described it as ‘blasphemous’, a ‘glorification of child murder’ and a play which ‘made fun of the Holocaust’. It turns out that all three of those objections alluded only to fleeting individual lines of dialogue that could very easily be missed altogether: for instance, by turning your attention away long enough to make sure your mobile phone was on ‘silent’.

Even if you did pick up on them, however, it is hard to reconcile those spoken lines with all the horrors they were supposed to portend. Having watched the play, I find it little short of astonishing that there were real live people, on real live discussion programmes, who once argued that ‘Stitching’ might give rise to a wave of violent rape cases, or to a re-enactment of the notorious Myra Hindley murders of the 1960s... or even of the Holocaust itself.

Not, mind you, that this should have any bearing whatsoever on one’s assessment of the actual play. Like all other cultural phenomena, plays like ‘Stitching’ have to be judged on the basis of what they set out to achieve. Clearly, inciting mass rape or genocide was not very high on Nielson’s agenda (otherwise, he would have written more than just four or five words to that effect). Now that all the dust has finally settled, ‘Stitching’ can be seen for what it ultimately was all along: a low-key, somewhat Spartan play, focusing only on the strain an unplanned pregnancy places on a relationship that is already close to breaking point.

On that level, it works perfectly well. But on the level we were actually discussing it around 10 years ago, ‘Stitching’ can only be described as a total let-down. I have heard much stronger language – and certainly seen a lot more graphic content – on any number of video games rated ‘16’.

Which brings me to the overwhelming irony in the timing of Unifaun’s ‘Stitching’ production. By forcing us to wait 10 whole years to watch this play, the censors ensured it would be staged at a time when ‘theatre censorship’ was itself already abolished; and when the criminal prosecution of local authors /editors such as Alex Vella Gera and Mark Camilleri – over equally inconsequential short stories featuring ‘strong language’ – was likewise a thing of the past.

Among the other changes since 2009 were the introduction of divorce by referendum in 2011; the subsequent legalisation of civil unions, and eventually gay marriage; the liberalisation of IVF to include sperm donation and embryo freezing; as well as the first baby born to a local same-sex couple through those previously ‘forbidden’ technologies.  (Interestingly enough, that last item happened to feature on the news in the first week of Stitching’s belated run at the Manoel.)  And while the actual legal scenario surrounding abortion has not changed one iota since 2009 – or even since 1886, for that matter – there is now at least one women’s rights advocacy group calling for legal changes in that department, too.

Funny, isn’t it, how all the ‘social horrors’ that Stitching was supposed to unleash, actually came about of their own accord, with no help from any theatrical production... at a time when the play itself was still officially banned?

But that’s just an aside, merely to overlabour a point I have been making in connection with this hopelessly contrived ‘controversy’ for years. Meanwhile, there is another, somewhat more pressing irony that is considerably harder to fathom. For while Malta has progressed by leaps and bounds since the (recent) time when plays were banned, and individual authors threatened with imprisonment... the country is now – now, please note: not 10 years ago – being harangued internationally over precisely the same issues.

One other recent development, also timed by fate to coincide with ‘Stitching’s first run, is that Malta is suddenly being compared to Viktor Orban’s Hungary, of all places. And we have even been threatened with the same fate: i.e., the application of Article 7, which is usually reserved for EU member states which pose “clear risk of a serious breach” of the “values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.”

In the specific case of Hungary, this extraordinary recourse by the European Parliament was in part occasioned by an erosion of ‘freedom of expression’ dating back to 2011: when Orban’s government introduced a new media law that made local publishers subject to “heavy fines and sanctions if their coverage was deemed to be unbalanced or immoral”.

In the same year, the director of Budapest’s New Theatre (Istvan Marta) was sacked over a controversial production of Schiller’s highly political drama, ‘Don Carlos’. It marked the beginning of a steadily worsening cycle of stage, media and other forms of censorship – including of the Internet – under Orban’s militantly ‘Christian Democrat’ regime: greatly compounded by other legislative changes to similarly roll back rights and freedoms in other areas, especially where minority groups such as immigrants and Hungary’s LGTB community were concerned.

Naturally, I don’t want to read too much into the superficial resemblances with the political direction Malta was clearly heading in at roughly the same time. Like Hungary, Malta was also busy suppressing ‘immoral’ expressions in art and elsewhere; but unlike Hungary, Malta did not extend that to open defiance of the Human Rights Charter. For instance: Alex Vella Gera and Mark Camilleri were threatened with prison for ‘immorality’, yes... but they went on to win their court case, and walked away as free as little songbirds. If this were Hungary – or Russia, for that matter, where the Pussy Riot controversy ran along similar lines – who knows? They might still be in prison today...

Moving beyond censorship issues: in 2011, Gonzi’s government had campaigned against divorce ahead of a nationwide referendum. If this were Hungary, it is debatable whether a referendum would even have been held at all; and possibly also whether the ‘Yes’ vote would have been respected against the prime minister’s wishes. But it was Malta, not Hungary; so Gonzi limited himself only to personally voting against divorce in parliament, while ensuring a sufficient majority to pass the law he had earlier tried to prevent.

What this effectively means is that, even when Malta was at its most comparable to Orban’s Hungary – i.e., 10 years ago and earlier: when state-imposed censorship was at its peak, and ‘immoral’ issues were likewise stifled with gusto – we still could not be likened with that country on any realistic basis. So you can just imagine how much less we can be compared to Hungary today, when – whatever its other faults – Malta is very clearly moving in the clear opposite direction.

And yet... the comparison is being made today, not in 2011 or previously: even if we were fully-fledged members of the EU at a time when our basic rights and freedoms were under direct threat from the State. Anyone out there care to guess why?

Oh, OK, I’ll tell you myself (twist my arm, etc). It was Antonio Tajani, President of the European People’s Party, who compared Malta to Hungary, while giving himself a convenient excuse to abstain on the Article 17 vote. By an extraordinary coincidence, Viktor Orban’s ruling party happens to be a member of the EPP... as was Gonzi’s Nationalist Party in 2011, and still is today.

It seems that people like Tajani – or their scriptwriters, whoever these may be – never see any threats to ‘values and freedoms’ when they emanate directly from their own political allies. Miraculously, however, they suddenly manage to see the same threats with immense clarity, the moment they look at countries governed by their political adversaries... even in places like Malta, where those same threats manifestly do not exist at all.

And there I was, thinking that this level of political prejudice and bigotry was somehow the preserve of tiny little insular countries like Malta; while great big ‘serious’ institutions like the European Parliament operated on loftier, more elevated principles. I must say it is an immense relief, to finally realise that the single most powerful political bloc in the European Union is every bit as politically mature as the typical Maltese ‘partitarju’ at a Mass Meeting. It just fills me with confidence that the European Parliament will adopt a fair and equitable approach, when it comes to debating whether or not to trigger Article 7 against Malta (a threat that has already been verbally made). It reassures us all that any such decision will be based on measurable facts on the ground... and not on the basis of some blind and idiotic partisan bias, of the kind that the EP invariably rises above...

And I’m afraid I’m going to have to stop there, because my in-built irony-meter has just exploded. These things take time to fix, you know...

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