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Jerry Springer: the Opera - Birmingham Hippodrome, 07/02/2006

simon gray 2006-02-07, 23:03:46
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Bill of Rights 
Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Such is the above extract from the constitution of the USA quoted on the first page of the programme for Jerry Springer: the Opera - which is widely interpreted as being the part of the constitution which guarantees the people the right to free assembly, to protest, to speak freely, and to enjoy and practice their religious beliefs (or lack of them) without interference or favour from the State. 

Of course, the USA constitution does not apply to us (no matter how much George W Bush would wish it to be so), but many of its principles are sound enough, based on the British legal system anyway. And, in fact, the British constitution protects freedom of speech and religion perhaps more vigourously - the constitution position in Britain is that everything is lawful unless there's a specific common or statutory law to prohibit it. 

During this past week, as the controversy over the publishing of the cartoons depicting Mohammed has escalated into deaths and the Government's Religious Hatred Bill passed into law (though significantly amended), we have ironically seen much more hatred coming fromreligion than directed towards it. So as I approached the Birmingham Hippodrome theatre for the show I did wonder what kind of reception would meet me outside; in the end, there was little more than a handful of Christian protesters outside, mostly singing songs with one man acting as a street preacher. During a short gap in his shouting I tried to engage him in discussion about his views, but sadly he didn't seem to have any of his own - always giving the answer "it doesn't matter what my opinion is, this is what the Bible says". I had little more success with the different set of protesters after the show - one woman I tried to talk to (who told me I obviously know nothing about religion) said she was "too busy to talk because I'm handing out these leaflets". You can't beat good dialague, eh? 

It has been agreed that nobody has the right not to be offended, though it has been said a lot recently that nobody has the obligation to deliberately cause offence. But is that truly the case? It is the job of satirists to 'prick the bubble of pomposity and hypocrisy'. By it's nature, satire cannot work unless it is offensive - tame satire is no satire at all, and pricks no bubbles and effects no change. The response of those who are satirised and offended should be to examine what it is about themselves which has prompted the satire, rather than to demand its removal.

Extreme evangelical Christians denounce the show as blasphemous; but to paraphrase another, what is the greater blasphemy - seeing Jesus in a nappy saying he might be 'just a bit gay', or abortion doctors receiving death threats, people in Northern Ireland living in fear of the gun and the mortar as a result of their allegiance (or otherwise) to the Pope, or gay people being harrassed, spat at, and condemned simply because of who they are? And there is the matter of the portrayal of Jesus himself; as co-writer Richard Thomas himself put it, "Evangelical Christians lost all right to object to ways in which Jesus is portrayed when Christian bookshops started selling nodding Jesus dolls to put on the dashboards of their cars". 

The show itself is a masterpiece, deserving the critical acclaim it has received. The first half presents a typical Jerry Springer show, complete with cheating husbands, gay transvestites, fetishists, white supremacists, and a somewhat over-eager warm-up man; you could be forgiven for thinking you're watching the real thing. Come the second half, and the action shifts to Hell where Satan has commanded (it's either that or barbed wire in an uncomfortable place) Jerry to put on a special edition of the show in order to try to extact an apology for his treatment over the millenia, concluding with Jerry's 'final thought' that good and evil are actually shades of grey rather than the black & white we normally see on his show. The music ranges from the usual broadway musical through to a duet which could have been lifted straight from Mozart's Don Giovanni, and the sets and costumes whilst not lavishly expensive are more than good enough to suspend your disbelief. The only thing which was a weakness in the performance was the sound balance - all the actors were amplified much too loudly, drowning out the band and leading to poor sound quality. 

It's fair to say that one doesn't necessarily need to have seen something in order to object to it - but if you're going to protest against something, you really ought to ensure you have the facts. All the protesters I spoke to admitted they had not seen the play, and were in fact basing their objections solely on what they'd read or been told by their pastors. This was very much evident by the innaccuracies in what they were claiming; for example, the last paragraph of the afforementioned leaflet saying "God is not the 'fascist tyrant on high' as Jerry Springer: the Opera mocks" - if the author had actually seen it, they would have seen the play does not portray God as any kind of tyrant, fascist or otherwise, completely the opposite, in fact; "It's not easy being me, millions of voices making all the wrong choices and passing on to me the blame" is his lament when he makes his visit to the Hell studio. Which is the ultimate irony - in actual fact, Jerry Springer: the Opera did not set out to satirise Jesus, Christianity, or even religion in general. The point of the play is to criticise the kind of society which has given rise to programmes such as The Jerry Springer Show and which laps them up like cats around a bowl of milk. If the protesters were to stop and think for a while, they might find they actually agree with most of it.

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