Behzti is no longer taboo

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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

Elsewhere, on Offence

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.

The Big Libel Gig

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.
Some of my photos from backstage and in the wings are online at Flickr:

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.

War and Incitement

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.

Infinite Jest and Attempts on Her Life

David Foster Wallace in San Francisco, 2006. Photo by Steve Rhodes
David Foster Wallace in San Francisco, 2006. Photo by Steve Rhodes

I’ve taken the plunge and started reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, using the Infinite Summer blog as a handy pacemaker and reading aide to what I am beginning to understand is a supremely complex book.

It’s only annoying if you look at the novel as a code to crack, if you see everything as a clue.
Marcus Sakey: ‘Decoding Infinite Jest; or, Don’t’

The first similarity I’ve noticed is between Infinite Jest, and Attempts on Her Life by Martin Crimp, a play I know intimiately after working on it at the National Theatre back in the ’07.  The chapter beginning on page 27 of the book is written in a style highly reminiscent of several of scenes in Crimp’s play.  I noticed it when the phrase “quote-unquote” popped up in the dialogue.  It is utilised in a similar manner in both pieces, to convey a certain official or professional manner, a style of speaking that prentends to be disinterested, but it actually quite hostile.  From there, it was pleasing to see that the chapter follows a similar structure to a couple of scenes from Attempts.  The characters actually present describe another by means of a list that becomes an incantation of sorts, who said x or who did y:

“Who requires only daily evidence that you speak…
“Who used to pray daily for the day his own dear late father would sit, cough, open that bloody issue of the Tuscon Citizen, and not turn that newspaper into the room’s fifth wall. “

Compared with Attempts on Her Life:

Is this the same little Anne who now has witnesses breaking down in tears? …
Who screwed tiny mechanisms and mercury tilt switches to a mercury circuit board, with a mouth of deep pan pizza?

Another major parallel is in the structure.  Like Infinite Jest, Crimp’s Attempts is not a code to be cracked.  The seventeen or so ‘attempts’ are not related to each other, plotwise, although certain refrains and themes return more than once.  It remains to be seen whether this happens with Foster Wallace’s book, but from what I have read (no spoilers, I’ve made sure of that) I am assuming this will be a feature, to some degree.   Marcus Sakey confirms its not a code to be cracked, at least.
And finally, I sense several themes emerging in Infinite Jest that are shared with Attempts:  A satire on commercialism and product placement; pretensiousness in modern art; women attempting suicide;  and above all, an attempt to describe a dissociation brought about by modern society.

Martin Crimp. Photo by Graeme Robertson
Martin Crimp. Photo by Graeme Robertson

Moving Photography?

Jason Kottke thinks that the stills video camera will become obsolete in a few years time:

As resolution rises & prices fall on video cameras and hard drive space, memory, and video editing capabilities increase on PCs, I suspect that in 5-10 years, photography will largely involve pointing video cameras at things and finding the best images in the editing phase. Professional photographers already take hundreds or thousands of shots during the course of a shoot like this, so it’s not such a huge shift for them.

I think he underestimates the convenience that the traditional method provides.  Editing even a few moments of video is a lengthy process, and selecting a precise frame or three from a length of footage will be too time consuming for the average punter.  Granted, professional photographers do fire off dozens of snaps in quick succession, to increase their chances of capturing ‘the moment’.  But the ratio of wheat to chaf in this process must surely never approach that generated by 25 f.p.s. video (or film).  I don’t doubt that at the very high-end, photographers will continue to use this technique, but the act of editing, of post-production, will keep the time premium high, and restrain its use to a limited number of professionals.  Without devoting the time to inspect every single frame, how can you be sure the quality of the image would be any better than normal?  It is certainly not an appropriate technique for photojournalists on a deadline, or the amateur snapper with other things to do.

The clamour for the photo (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
The clamour for the photo (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Way of the Blogs

Comment is free
Here’s a post I’ve just had published over at Comment is Free.  Later, I will post a selection of the comments I’ve received there.
Credit where its due: The Way of the Blogs is hardly a new idea.  It was much discussed back in the ’04 when people in the UK were starting to take notice of online debate.  More recently, it was discussed at one of English PEN’s round-tables that we held as part of our ongoing inquiry into UK libel laws.

There was some depressing news from Geneva last week, as the UN Human Rights Council voted to adopt a resolution on “defamation of religions”. Although the resolution is non-binding, and does not compel any state to change its laws, it does lend authority to those in countries around the world who wish to clamp down on criticism of religion.
Here in the UK, English PEN’s No Offence campaign in 2005 successfully ensured that religious defamation laws remained off the statute books, and that blasphemy laws are a thing of the past (thank God). Such laws are bad for freedom of expression, of course, but in seeking to shield adherents from criticism of their faith, they ultimately weaken religion, too.
However, when religion comes under attack, the alienation and marginalisation felt by believers is real. How can they achieve redress for a perceived offence, without resorting to censorship, or its kid brother, the boycott?
I think there is a lesson to be learnt from blogs. Despite the robust nature of much of the debate online, I do perceive a sort of online Omerta, a Way of the Blogs. This states that if you have been offended or disrespected online, you can always fight your corner by setting up a counter-blog somewhere else. The idea is that you do not attempt to suppress the offensive material, legally or otherwise, but instead use the same medium to counter and debunk it.
Offline, a recent example from the US, shows this spirit in action. The Jewish organisation Theatre J, based in Washington DC, has been staging readings of Caryl Churchill’s controversial Seven Jewish Children, despite many people branding the play anti-semitic (Comment is Free has already discussed this point at length). Director Ari Roth says he doesn’t endorse the play, but feels the playwright’s language has some resonance: “So many of the lines resonate not with the language of hate, but with the language of perception.”
Roth denies that he is engaging in a form of self-flagellation, because Theatre J’s staging was not done so uncritically. He commissioned two new pieces that engage with Churchill’s text, entitled Seven Palestinian Children and The Eighth Child. Ultimately, what Theatre J has done is to appropriate Churchill’s play. They have mirrored its style in new works, subverting it in order to advance an alternative world view. The quick and impromptu way they have done so seems to me to be very much a 21st century act, reminiscent of the mash-ups, parodies and rebuttals at which internet culture excels. Not so different from The Way of the Blogs after all.
So, staging someone’s play, singing their song, or telling their story, is not necessarily an act of endorsement. Sometimes it can be a broadside attack on a particular orthodoxy. Appropriation and mutilation of art is an act of rebellion, a well-established weapon of the disenfranchised. To give two other examples: I am reminded of Angela Carter’s feminist reworking of traditional fairy tales; and the sampling and looping that is an inherent feature of urban music such as hip-hop. Those who found Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti offensive, or those who were upset by Jyllands-Posten’s provocative Mohammed cartoons, could and should have responded in a similar manner. New digital technology makes this cheap and easy.
But why engage? Why should religious communities have to dignify such attacks from a secular majority that is intent on insulting them at every turn? The answer is simple: art and culture evolves through conflict. Failure to engage leads a culture to stagnation, irrelevance, and finally, death. Religious defamation laws will strangle the very communities they seek to protect. Only raw and offensive free expression can offer salvation.
(Comment at Comment is Free)


I’m proud to have been drafted in to help the Convention on Modern Liberty create a new design for their – our – WordPress website.The site will be updated  tomorrow to reflect the changes.
Another site to launch recently is LabourList, a party blog that has managed to draw many senior government and party figures to contribute. It went for a “soft launch” last week, and currently carries the notice

Beta Test Site – Official Launch 12th February 2009

However, that hasn’t stopped folk like Iain Dale writing reviews of the site, run by Derek Draper, pointing out its failings as a worthy challenger to ConservativeHome and its ilk on the political right.
As a director of 59 Productions, I was (until 2007) involved in many a theatrical production, ranging from site-specific work in Scotland to high-budget productions at the National Theatre and the London Coliseum.  With all these productions, it was standard practice to have one or more preview shows, effectively public dress rehearsals, where not only were creases ironed out of the staging, but often entire scenes were cut or reworked to make it more effective.  Beta-testing for live performance.  In each case, critics understand the fact that the previews do not necessarily represent the production in the way the director envisages.  They respect the effective embargo (to borrow a term from press releases) on reporting and reviewing the performance.  They wait until opening night.
It is perhaps a sign that the act of blogging is still in its immaturity, that the concept of holding off on judgement is not applied to the launch of blogs and websites, in the same way as it is for other forms of expression.

The Voice of the People

Well, the voting is over, and the winners have been announced. I refer of course to Britain’s Got Talent and I’d Do Anything, where the victors were revealed to much fanfare. Congratulations George and Jodie.
But the march of reality TV is relentless. I spotted this listing from The Times new TV listings magazine, Seer (I’ve linked there before):

TV Choice – Do You Hear The People Sing? (BBC1, 7.30pm)
Music maestro Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber launches a new talent quest, to discover a cast to feature in a remounting of the popular musical Les Miserables. Contestants of all ages will compete for the chance to play the various roles in the show, from child roles Gavroche and Cosette, to young lothario Marius and leading man Jean Valjean. Joining Lord Lloyd-Webber on the panel of judges will be Michael Ball and Bonnie Langford. Presebted by Tess Daly. This week: Bristol.

Elsewhere, Johann Hari says we should vote for the poet laureate.