I booked tickets for Stitching the day they came out. Without exaggeration I was the first to book a seat and I wondered if that made me seem desperate. I messaged all my friends to let them know and I decided that before I sat down and experienced the show live I would not look up anything about it. I wanted to go in without any preconceptions, however, that proved to be nearly impossible due to all the hearsay and press coverage the piece had gotten, so, instead here’s what I knew before I got into the lift that took me up to the studio.
1. The play had been pulled before opening and therefore no part of the general public had witnessed what exactly had caused the ban.
2. The legal battle lasted nearly ten years and whilst it caused a stir when the cry for censorship had been issues it seemed to fade away into oblivion as the years passed.
3. I had no clue what the story was about but from what I had heard from hearsay it was banned because of sex.
As I sat in the very intimate audience setting I realised it had been quite a long time since I had seen such a mix of theatre goers. Adrian Buckle, the producer of the piece, walked in spoke a few words about the so-called ‘banned play’ and sat down with the audience. The lights changed and the show began.
The show is not about sex. The subject is not sex. The focus is not sex. This is a show about loss. And somehow the discussion of what is perhaps one of the most devastating experiences one can go through, was drowned out because a group of people were shocked at the use of words like ‘cunt’ and ‘cock’ and the mention of sexually assaulting children and performing depraved sex acts.
I began to research exactly ‘what’ was banned and it seems the subject that proved most shocking was the mention of sexually assaulting a child, and yes, to be absolutely transparent, I felt incredibly uncomfortable during the play when this was discussed. However, that was the point. The description of the assault of a child was not meant to be a Nabokovian attempt at normalising the action, the mention of the assault was meant to instil in audiences a feeling of discomfort. Not simply for the sake of eliciting shocked responses but rather to show the extent of the mental collapse of one of the main characters had undergone.
The subject is not sex, however the language used to describe the loss is sexual. The use of sex is effective as it is incredibly visceral and intimate, words such as ‘cunt’, ‘cock’, ‘blowjob’ and ‘cum’ are very much existent in our private lives behind closed doors, they cause a stir within us, they grab our attention and, most importantly, they are universal.
A quick google search for the sites that garner most traffic in Malta reveals, according to Amazon’s Alexa, that numbers 28, 29, 34 and 43 on the list are all porn websites. The truth is we are a nation that consumes pornography. Here one might argue that the pornography consumed in all probability is more mainstream and legal, more to do with interracial couples and well-endowed women rather than rape fantasies, self-mutilation and bestiality; but the point remains that we are a nation that consumes sex.
Stitching could have gone the route of playing towards the moral high ground, describing loss through a more philosophical and poetic manner. But why would it want to when the language of sex is visceral and common to all humans, and is seen as one of the most intimate exchanges between to people? Surely would it not make sense to look at the emotional collapse through the lens of intimate acts?
However, perhaps the biggest issue I had with the ban was not that it pretended to feign shock at the use of sexual language; but rather that implicitly, what was being stated was that a Maltese audience was not yet ready to experience the shock and pain and sometimes unreasonable aftermath of loss. It was almost as if we live on an island where no parents had ever lost a child, where no news articles had ever been written about paedophilia and the sharing of pornography featuring children, and where no members of our society had undergone a mental collapse after an overwhelming experience such as that of losing a child.
Banning pieces such as Stitching simply because they discuss issues we would rather keep hidden in dark closets does not help us grow and move forward as a nation. Theatre has been for many decades, a safe space to reflect on our current state of humanity. If we cannot, in a place of pretend, discuss sex, loss and mental collapse how exactly are we meant to deal with their real counterparts?
I wish the people who banned the play had sat where I sat on opening night, staring at the faces of the audience members across me, seeing the reaction on their faces during the moment of revelation when they understood what exactly Stitching was about. Then I would love to see them attempt to argue that a Maltese audience is not ready for Stitching and that this piece was nothing more than a decadent shock value experience.