There are two answers to the question posed on the front cover of this issue: "Why are there no reviews of this play inside?". The first relates to the old, old story of the chronic atrophy of arts coverage in Britain: not enough resources either to keep a full network of regional stringers or to send London-based writers out often enough, not enough editorial interest in doing so. Not until a production becomes news. And by then, in this case, it was too late. Which leads me to the second answer, and very rapidly past it and into a prolonged burst of soapboxing.
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti (Dishonour) had its press night on Monday 13 December in Birmingham Rep’s studio space, The Door. If any national publications sent a reviewer to cover it, no review appeared that TR has seen. And I rather think we would have seen, because of what subsequently happened. On Thursday 16, police were called to a protest outside the theatre, and four arrests were made. Further protests, including an attempt to storm the theatre, occurred on Saturday 18: around 400 protesters were involved, five policemen were hurt and some 800 people in both The Door and the Rep’s main house space (including a large number of children, at a performance of The Witches) were besieged and eventually had to be evacuated. Windows and doors were destroyed, and backstage equipment smashed when some of the demonstrators gained entry. On Monday 20, the theatre management reluctantly cancelled the rest of the play’s run on immediate grounds of health and safety. Bhatti has subsequently been in hiding, in fear for her life, subsequent plans for performances or rehearsed readings of Behzti have been shelved at her request after the threats to her increased. So there’s the second answer: by the time it was deemed worthy of coverage, it could no longer be seen. Now for the rant.
This is the single most shameful and depressing event to take place in Britain in my theatregoing life. I almost left both my career and my country because of it. Shame and blame attach to the West Midlands Police, whose response was plainly inadequate to the level of protest; to those media and social figures who responded to the protests and cancellation with a “No, but...” in circumstances where such an attitude can only in practice be interpreted as “Yes”; to government ministers who either failed to grasp the magnitude of what had happened or blithely dismissed it; and, of course, to the protesters.
I’ve been trying to avoid mentioning this, because in so many ways it isn’t relevant, but as it happens, Bhatti is a British-born Sikh, her play involves sexual abuse and murder in a gurdwara (a Sikh temple), and the protesters were from the Sikh community. It can be downright damaging to portray the matter, as a number of commentators have, in terms of a “them” refusing to accept the cultural norms of an “us”. I repeat, Bhatti is British-born, and no doubt so were many if not most of the violent demonstrators. This isn’t a matter of Sikh or Asian values against Judaeo-Christian or European ones: the deplorable action of the Roman Catholic diocese of Birmingham in urging a boycott of the play, and pundit Mary Kenny’s too-terse description of the campaign of violence and intimidation as “successful”, show that the matter cuts across such lines. It’s about freedom, pure and simple.
Get over it
Every time such a freedom-of-expression matter arises, we hear the line (as, in this case, from Archbishop Vincent Nicholls) that “The right to freedom of expression has corresponding duties to the common good.” And it’s indubitably true. The trouble is that those duties are in fact the opposite of what such people always go on to claim. The duty is not principally one of responsibility or not causing offence on the part of the speaker (writer, whatever): that would mean that no right of free expression existed, merely a contingent permission, an arbitrarily revocable licence. The duty is in fact on the part of everyone else, and it is the duty to tolerate offence short of real, quantifiable criminal harm. The law has no place coddling our sensibilities; it’s there for cases of actual damage, not bruised senses of propriety, and not for acquiescing in the current cultural trend where we all want to claim privileged status as being victims at the hands of someone else. The solution for us as a society is easy to state and to grasp, if harder to accept or achieve. We need to get over it: to cultivate a general attitude where we accept that some things have to be borne and that, however irksome individual instances may be to us, this principle is in fact morally right. The current government announced plans a while ago to introduce legislation outlawing incitement to hatred on religious grounds, to parallel that which already prohibits incitement to hatred on racial grounds. Whatever the rights or wrongs of this proposal, it’s important to note that Behzti would not have fallen foul of such legislation: the “hatred” thus incited refers to actual criminal harm, not offended sensibilities.
There’s been a lot of pious twaddle talked about this matter. From Archbishop Nicholls, as aforesaid. From Sikh community leader Mohan Singh, who managed to say both “We are not bothered about rape scenes or paedophiles – we know that there are good and bad people from every background and religion” and “Sikhs are not like that” without apparently noticing any contradiction. From arts minister and Birmingham MP Estelle Morris, who said, "Although today is a very sad day for freedom of speech, I think the Rep has done the right thing" – well, er, isn’t it your parliamentary job to uphold such freedoms when riots enforce censorship, rather than pretending to ponder matters but actually just lying supine after the fact? Most lamentably from minister for race equality Fiona Mactaggart, whose breathtakingly insensitive response merits quoting at some length: “One of the things about protesters is that very often they create unintended consequences and I suspect that the message of the playwright will get a wider audience following this and the play might even get a new audience in another theatre. In my experience, very often the consequence of that [violent protests] is that the ideas of the play gain a wider audience than they would have had, had there not been such protests. That people feel this passionately about theatres is a good sign for our cultural life. It is a sign of a lively flourishing cultural life." In other words, all’s well that ends well, even though it hasn’t ended well yet, but it usually does, so we in the government need not bother ourselves with the fact that – let’s repeat it, as it seems to need repeating – violence forced the cancellation of a play simply because some people didn’t like it. A playwright is in hiding after threats on her life. Morris once resigned as Secretary of State for Education because she candidly admitted that she didn’t think she’d been up to the job; astoundingly, she seems to have had no such doubts on this occasion. As for Mactaggart, it beggars belief that those smug remarks could come from an erstwhile chair of Liberty (formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties). If she won’t resign, she should be universally shunned in all her ministerial dealings.
Yes, there has also been a heartening amount of solidarity behind the simple notion of freedom. Despite all the foregoing, most media comment has been along supportive lines, not least in the forceful letter which appeared in 23 December’s Guardian, signed by over 300 members of the theatre world (including the editorship of this magazine). But all our liberal outrage and good intentions are impotent if there’s inadequate official attention paid as well; and as long as such blinkered stupidity prevails at ministerial level then all we can hope to do is lessen the scale of defeat, not reverse the result.
Yes, too, let’s keep a sense of perspective. One reason why the Behzti story has died down is the incalculable disaster of the Asian tsunami. If Bhatti’s play had enjoyed a total sell-out run, the number of people who saw it would have amounted to scarcely 2% of those fatalities so far confirmed in Asia as this issue goes to press. There can be no question which matter demands more, and more immediate, concern and attention. (As well, of course, as media focus. There’s no story without storytellers. Cast your mind back – good Lord! – 16 years to the Satanic Verses brouhaha. Do you remember that first book-burning in Bradford? No, you don’t; the media scarcely reported it at all, so the event was repeated a month later with better PR, and that’s the one that got the coverage. And while we’re at it, remember that the fatwa on Salman Rushdie has never been lifted: 16 years on, he remains condemned to death.)
But the issue of mob censorship won’t go away. The longer we ignore this mugging of our freedom, the more arduous it’s going to be to claw that freedom back.
Oh, and late-breaking news as we go to press: following the BBC’s laudable decision not to cancel its television broadcast of Jerry Springer: The Opera as scheduled on 8 January, protests have included the claim that “There should be freedom of speech but there should never be freedom for desecration.” Meanwhile, the controller of the channel has had to engage security guards to protect his home and family. Shall I re-type the last 1500 words all over again, changing some of the religious references, or shall we just all swear quietly together under our breath and then proceed to the rest of the past month in theatre?
Not that there’s a great deal of space left for that. Well, some things are important (like my blood pressure). An account of my seasonal experiences appears separately at the back of this issue, and I saw few straight(ish) productions for which a review of mine doesn’t already appear herein. Obscure pop-generation gag: when I pointed out to my friend that one of the chorus performers in Mary Poppins was called Howard Jones, we both started wondering whatever happened to the ’80s synth-pop merchant of the same name, and indeed to his mime-artist sidekick; when the company started an odd Edwardian bodypoppin' routine to accompany "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", we realised that the spirit of the latter at least was alive and well. Oh, and Michael Billington may have had to wait until around 9.32 for “the one moment of genuine ecstasy” in the show, but that was at an early-starting press night; for the rest of us, it’s closer to 9.55.
The reason Fix Up is so melodramatically bald (if it were an episode of Thunderbirds, you’d be able to see the strings) is that author Kwame Kwei-Armah is in this instance less interested in the shape of his story than the shape of history. As a lengthy programme interview (with Kwei-Armah as interviewer) indicates, the play is a tour d’horizon of a century and more of black consciousness. It gives us a reading list and, as it were, sets the essay question, but seems to think that asking the question is enough. In such a provocative and tendentious area, one in which Kwei-Armah has clearly shown his involvement and concern, it’s not. We need to discuss the various responses too.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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