While everyone else has been banging on about the election, I’ve been banging on about free speech. Here’s a review that was commissioned for Index on Censorship and cross-posted at Comment is Free, so choose your forum for comments. As before, I’ll post a selection of CiF comments on this blog in due course.
Last Friday, British theatre took a small step in the direction of free speech. At the Soho Theatre, in the heart of London’s west end, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti was performed in the UK for the first time since it was controversially cancelled in 2004.
Let us be clear: this was no great stride for freedom, more an anxious shuffle. The performance was a rehearsed reading, not a full production, and received no publicity whatsoever. It was completely absent from the theatre’s website, and was only advertised to those who had been to see Behud, Bhatti’s most recent play. Buying a ticket felt a little like purchasing bootleg liquor from under the counter, and the atmosphere in the auditorium was, I imagine, how dissidents must have felt in the 1640s, when religious puritans closed the theatres and drama was performed illegally. Proper free speech has to be more open than this.
However, at the start of the performance, it became clear just how necessary and important this toddler’s step was to those who lived through the panicked, abrupt cancellation of 2004. I was surprised to hear Janet Steel, the director of the original production, say that she “thought this day would never come.” To an outsider, this modest reading was hardly radical. But to those who were threatened, who witnessed the picket lines first-hand, it is as if the cancellation happened yesterday. The first impressive thing about Friday’s reading was how many of the original cast had turned out to revive the script.
The performance revealed just how essential it is to the piece that it is set in a gurdwara. The rapist, Mr Sandhu, has built the temple, and is responsible for extending it. His office is his lair, and he derives his power over the other characters when he is in it. Choose any other setting (as some have suggested) and the key dynamic simply doesn’t work.
Behzti is often referred to as “that Sikh play”, a phrase which suggests a comparison with “The Scottish Play” (indeed, it has a lot in common with Macbeth, including a heightened realism and off-stage murders). This label suggests that it is for the Sikh community alone to determine its worth and relevance. This is a mistake – sexual abuse is, sadly, universal. For example, scenes from Behzti were mirrored in Two Women, which has just finished a run at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. In that play, too, we see the complicity of women in the perpetuation of the abuse cycle. And we all know that child abuse and even murder within a church setting is a long established theme for drama. Behzti is a visceral play that the British public, all of us, deserves to see.
Six years after its abortive first production, Behzti still feels current and relevant. The actors turned in a robust delivery with very little time to rehearse, as if they were picking up where they left off. They have reinforced the artistic case for a proper revival.
Over the past five and half years, all other barriers to a remount have also crumbled. The blasphemy argument is as incoherent now as it was then. Even in 2004, there was no consensus among Sikh commentators as to whether the play was an insult to the religion. Since then, the very idea that blasphemy is a reason for censorship has been discredited. After Behzti, controversies over the Danish Muhammad cartoons, and the protests surrounding Jerry Springer the Opera have tested the public’s patience on the issue of “offence”. Public opinion is now firmly against censoring art for religious reasons, and it is now broadly accepted that faith remains strong even when religion is criticised. Even the hotheads who might disagree in principle know that, in practice, peaceful protest and counter-speech are more effective than threats. The violent demonstrations outside the Birmingham Rep are a thing of the past.
Moreover, the police have shown unequivocally that they are prepared to guarantee the safety of the theatregoers at controversial performances. For Behud in Coventry, the West Midlands police force took this issue extremely seriously, and allocated their staff accordingly, at no charge to the theatre. They have offered to do the same for future controversial productions.
Most importantly, Bhatti herself is positive about a revival of Behzti. In past years, she was (understandably) reticent about new productions. But on Friday evening she said to me that she “would love to see a new production”.
For too long, the British theatre community has been embarrassed by the Behzti affair. Its response to the crisis was positive but far too slow. Half a decade later, theatre directors can no longer wish the play into obscurity – its continued censorship is a boil that must now be lanced. The only barrier that now remains is the British theatre community itself, which needs to purge itself of the cowardly and ignorant assumption that the play is still “off limits”.
No more of this apathy. Let it be known that, as of last Friday, this excuse of last resort has been demolished. Behzti is no longer taboo. It can be performed, properly and publicly. What are we waiting for?
Behzti, a play about sex abuse and murder in a Sikh temple, was cancelled in 2004 after the Sikh community stormed the theatre. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters