An extremely odd and disconcerting story was reported in the Guardian this week, regarding a National Youth Theatre play that has abruptly cancelled, just two weeks before its opening night. There are fears that ‘Homegrown’ was pulled due to the sensitive subject matter: young people drawn to ISIS.
In my essay for the Sunday Herald I made the case for the necessity of the swearing and offensive chatter that makes up much of the dialogue in Black Watch:
They are working class, inarticulate and insecure boys with no prospects other than the army. And when these men speak, they swear. It is integral to their vernacular. To sanitize their words would be to silence them.
Unfortunately the constraints of the page forbade me from elaborating on this point…. but luckily, I have a blog.
The swearing of the enlisted men is also important because of the contrast it presents with the officer class, and the politicians who have sent Scottish soldiers into harm’s way for centuries. The show has a marvellous musical number where Lord Elgin, in full highland dress and regalia, prances around the stage, beckoning the young men to sign-up: “hurrah, hurrah!” He speaks the Queen’s English, and he is as mendacious as they come (“did I mention it would be all over by Christmas” he says as he sends the soldiers off to Flanders in 1914). In this context, the Fifer accents of the soldiers are a necessity. Homogenising the language would be an act of class warfare.
To my mind, the final genius of Black Watch lies in the juxtaposition between the coarse language and the stunning physical theatre. One reason why Steven Hoggett’s choreography is so powerful is because the precise and often tender movements emerge from characters who have been f-ing and c-ing just moments before. The combination jars the audience and is compelling, and it is the rude words that tee-up this possibility.
A headteacher in Kirriemuir has caused controversy by banner her pupils from studying Black Watch, the National Theatre of Scotland production that I worked on in 2006. What with this history, couple with the free speech work I do for English PEN, this is perhaps the perfect issue for me to write on. Over the weekend, The Sunday Herald published my essay setting the issue in its context.
Free speech controversies are like solar flares. They burn hot and bright. Right now, it is Angus that is feeling the heat. Last week, the Sunday Herald reported that one headteacher in Kirriemuir had pulled Black Watch off the Highers syllabus because it is “offensive”. Parents are angry at the decision, and have demanded an explanation. Continue reading Defending ‘Black Watch’ and free speech in the classroom→
Tenacious readers will recall that I had some small involvement in War Horse, the preposterously successful National Theatre production that transferred to the West End, and now Broadway. Fifty Nine Productions has just published a short film on the video design element of the show.
In the Guardian, Patrick Kinsley has a round-up of the New York reviews, including some emotional blogging:
“I wept silently yet uncontrollably,” writes blogger Lisa Lindblad. “I am not capable of emotional distance in the face of an animal’s pain nor an animal’s love. I was distraught. And, so, I made it through until intermission and then left. Reluctantly, sadly, but self-protectively.”
Here are the puppeteers behing the show, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, speaking (and performing) at a TED talk. I worked with them in the early workshops for War Horse, and it was fascinating to see how they developed the subtle movements that made the wooden contraptions so lifelike.
For full geek points, you might like to look at this experimental stop-motion animation I made in 2007, one evening after work at the National. In one shot you can see the horse puppets in the background, swaying in the air-conditioning and looking not unlike a real animal resting after a hard day in the field. It was odd yet brilliant that even the most rudimentary rehearsal models seemed to have that life to them.
As were, somewhat crucially, Jude Law and Kevin Spacey. Here are my photos of the event:
The demo began outside the offices of Grayling PR, who have set up an office in Minsk and promote morally compromised businesses in Belarus. Keenly aware of the PR damage such an association might cause, the CEO of Grayling posted a blog on the issue. Michael Murphy pointed out that companies he promotes in Belarus provide local jobs, and lauds the ‘economic opportunity’ that they provide. However, without free expression and democratic checks, this so-called ‘opportunity’ is meaningless, limited only to those who acquiesce to Alexander Lukashenko brutal methods of control. Murphy’s words are hollow, his reasoning unsound and amoral.
A salient fact from the blog sticks out:
There are no UN sanctions against Belarus
Well, quite. This is a huge political failure. Leaving Grayling’s offices behind, the demonstrators walked down Victoria Street to the Houses of Parliament, to lobby British MPs on this issue and demand a tougher stance against Lukashenko and his cronies. New and free elections are sorely needed, and the political prisoners – journalists, activists and presidential candidates – must be released.
Now watch this video of the demonstration, including a short and eloquent paean to freedom of expression from Mr Law:
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?
In The Independent, Michael Coveney discusses theatre that offends, and what to do about it. There is a quote from yrstrly too:
Freedom of speech carries with it a freedom to insult; otherwise, as Tom Stoppard says, it’s not a freedom worth having. Bhatti’s first play was not based on any real-life case history, but offered as an extreme allegory of hypocrisy. And as a Sikh herself, who is she to be denied that privilege?
It says much about the state we’re in that her new play comes with explicit support from campaign groups Index on Censorship, English PEN and Free World. Robert Sharp of PEN says that the Sikhs who took exception to Behzti (and many prominent Sikhs didn’t) should remember that when you are satirised or criticised, then you’re relevant, you’ve arrived. But is there any limit to the offence a theatrical play can cause, or should there be?
“None at all,” says Sharp, “except perhaps from a clear incitement to violence. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are sister rights. There is neither in China or Iran. People here should respond to things they don’t like by writing reviews, or writing their own plays.”
Both of the readers of this blog will note the provenance of the sound-bites offered. The bit about satire of minority faiths as a badge of relevance was first mooted in 2005; Putting limits on free speech in cases of incitement was noted last month; and my thoughts on counter-speech and responding through plays and reviews was the subject of a Comment is Free piece last year. Its a long term project, but you can see how the blog-as-scrapbook model is beginning to pay off.
Last night, the Libel Reform Campaign staged ‘The Big Libel Gig’, an evening of comedy, science and politics. Scientists Simon Singh and Brian Cox joined doctors Ben Goldacre (author of ‘Bad Science‘) and Peter Wilmshurst. Politicians Evan Harris (Lib Dem), Peter Bottomley (Con) and Paul Farrelly (Lab) also took a turn, alongside the proper comedians: Robin Ince, Marcus Brigstocke, Ed Byrne, Shappi Khorsandi and Dara O’Briain.
In parliament, the campaign reached a tipping point – the majority of eligible MPs have now signed Early Day Motion 423 which calls for reform.
Unfortunately, the libel laws are still being used to suppress discussion in the public interest. Professor Francisco Lacerda is a Swedish academic who has been threatened with a libel suit by an Israeli lie detector manufacturer. He visited London last week, to highlight how England’s libel laws prevent him from publishing research about technology being used by the DWP in England. Millions of pounds of public money has been spent on this technology.
I was talking about free expression at an event the other day, when the subject of incitement to violence cropped up. I mentioned the formulation that Aryeh Neier (President of the Open Society Institute) gave at GFFEx last year, regarding whether the person doing the violence agreed with the person whose speech provoked it.
Blasphemy or religious defamation are essentially insults against a person or group of persons on the basis of one’s religious, or it could be another form of group defamation, where one is attacking or insulting members of a particular race or a particular nationality. But it doesn’t have the effect of inspiring the supports of the speaker to engage in violence; rather it is the opponents of the speaker who might engage in violence. So hate speech incites; blasphemy and religious defamation provoke.
That seems to me very important. I think there limited circumstances in which it may be appropriate to punish those who engage in hate speech. I think there are virtually no circumstances where it is appropriate to punish those who engage in in blasphemy or religious defamation, that is the circumstances in which they have provoked others to attack them.
An interesting retort to this, was to ask whether King Henry V was engaging in incitement to violence when he gives his famous, rousing speech?
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
My only response was to suggest that, yes, the French would probably consider Henry’s speech an ‘incitement to violence’ and worthy of censorship, if only they could! But in practice, such political speech is usually seen as exempt when matters of war and national survival are at stake. Governments and their populations are usually comfortable with placing extra restrictions on our human rights during times of crisis.
However, there are times when this special exemption might not be as clear cut as we think. Who, on 14th September 2001, objected to President George W. Bush giving a memorial speech for those killed in the attacks on the World Trade Centre just three days earlier? Yet it was in that speech that he first used the phrase ‘War on Terror’, a formulation that has become hugely problematic and inciting. The following week, when America was still reeling from the shock and in need of rousing leadership, the word ‘crusade’ slipped into the President’s remarks, which not only provoked the Islamic world, but certainly had the effect of inciting certain elements of American society to violent, disproportionate action. The last film I went to see, My Name is Khan, deals with the aftermath of such words.