Plans to restage the controversial “anti-Sikh” play Behzti in Birmingham, where it sparked off a riot this past weekend, have been shelved at the request of the author who has received multiple death threats (See News, 20 Dec 2004).

Neal Foster, the actor-manager of the Birmingham Stage Company, offered to present the controversial play at a local community centre after original producer Birmingham Rep decided on Monday to cancel the remainder of the premiere run for fear of recurring violence (See News, 21 Dec 2004).

Speaking to yesterday, Foster said: “The ramifications - for everyone in our industry, in the artistic field and wider still – for allowing violence to censor art are too frightening. I’m very reluctant to have to be involved in this way, but I am so angry and so determined that violence should not prevail.”

He later proposed an alternative in which theatres around the UK would stage a reading of the play on a single day, after which each could hold a discussion between the performers, the audience and leading members of the Sikh community who may wish to take part. Foster had hoped that “this would provide a calmer, quieter opportunity to reflect on the issues the play has raised”, both widening the audience but diffusing the possibility of one location being used as a target for protesters, who maintain that the play depicting rape, murder and corruption is offensive to the Sikh community.

However, Foster has now withdrawn his proposals after being contacted late yesterday by author Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti who said she did not want Behzti restaged. The London-based Sikh playwright, who is now in hiding, has received an increasing number of threats as the play has attracted widespread media attention. In a statement issued today, Foster said that, though he would act “in due deference to this request and in recognition of the writer’s situation”, he was “saddened and dismayed by the events of the last few days.”

Meanwhile, the Royal Court Theatre - the London-based venue for new writing whose banned premiere of Edward Bond’s Early Morning was instrumental in overturning the governmental censorship powers of the Lord Chamberlain’s office in 1968 - obtained a copy of the Behzti script and was reportedly considering staging the play in London next year. When speaking last night to BBC News, Royal Court associate director Ramin Gray, said: “Irrespective of the quality of this play, I think we have to see it. We cannot allow this to be simply shunted aside and forgotten about."

However, a Royal Court spokesperson told today that Gray’s comments had been taken out of context and that, while it deplored any form of censorship, the theatre had no plans to stage Behzti. Any form of production at the Sloane Square venue, he reiterated, is “highly unlikely”.

Peaceful demonstrations involving an estimated 400 Sikhs turned violent on Saturday night at Birmingham Rep, where Behzti first started performances on 20 December. A total of 85 police were required to restore order and evacuate more than 800 people from the theatre when protesters stormed the building. On Monday, when local Sikh leaders failed to provide assurances that there would be no further riots, Birmingham Rep decided to cancel the play’s run, citing safety concerns.

In the wake of that decision, many artistic leaders have spoken out against censorship via mob rule and lent their support to Birmingham Rep. Out of Joint’s Max Stafford-Clark, formerly artistic director of the Royal Court, told the Guardian newspaper: “A riot will always stop a play: withdrawing it is a pragmatic response in the face of public safety issues. But if a play is good, it will have its day.” The Royal Court’s current artistic director Ian Rickson noted: “The Birmingham scenario reminds us of the potency of live theatre. It can be more impactful than any other form.”

- by Terri Paddock

Events in Birmingham have sparked numerous comments on the Discussion Forum. To read or join the debate, click here.