Birmingham Stage Company actor-manager Neal Foster has offered to stage Behzti, which is controversially set in a Sikh temple, at a local multicultural centre. That would be in addition to its regular work, producing an average of three plays a year at the Old Rep theatre, ironically the former home of The Rep, where Foster’s newer company has been resident for the past 12 years.
Peaceful demonstrations involving an estimated 400 Sikhs turned violent on Saturday night, necessitating the evacuation of more than 800 people from Birmingham Rep. Yesterday the theatre management decided not to continue performances of the play because Sikh leaders were unable to assure them that the violence would not recur.
According to Foster, however, “Freedom of expression is more important than health and safety.” Speaking to Whatsonstage.com this morning, he explained that he did not actually want to produce Behzti, saying of his rival theatre, “it’s their play and I think it’s their responsibility… I pray that they will reconsider”.
However, if Birmingham Rep does not reverse its decision to abandon the play, Foster promises that his Birmingham Stage Company will look to revive it in the new year. “It’s incumbent on another company in Birmingham – and we’re the only other major producing company – to stage this play. We have to,” he told Whatsonstage.com.
“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.”
As Behzti made headlines across the country, other theatre leaders echoed Foster’s sentiments and lent their support to Birmingham Rep. Amongst those speaking to the Guardian newspaper, Out of Joint’s Max Stafford-Clark, formerly artistic director of the Royal Court, said: “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.”
National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner commented: “The management of Birmingham Rep are absolutely right to do whatever they need to do to protect the welfare of their company and their premises.”
Guardian drama critic Michael Billington said: “The real danger is that the protesters’ short-term success may induce a mood of self-censorship in both dramatists and theatres.” On a more positive note, he added: “The protesters have won an immediate, and disturbing, victory. But they cannot, as the history of drama proves, win the war against ideas.” And Royal Court 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.”
One voice that has remained quiet in the raging debate over the past few days is that of the Sikh playwright, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, who has reportedly been driven into hiding by threats of abduction and murder from the protesters who succeeded in having Behzti cancelled.
- by Terri Paddock