“Following the deplorable violence at the Repertory Theatre on Saturday evening, we have had further discussions with West Midlands Police and leaders of the Sikh community this morning. Sadly, community leaders have been unable to guarantee to us that there will be no repeat of the illegal and violent activities that we witnessed on Saturday.
“The theatre has two major responsibilities. Its first is its commitment to artistic freedom. It also has a duty of care to its audiences, staff and performers. It is now clear that we cannot guarantee the safety of our audiences. Very reluctantly, therefore, we have decided to end the current run of the play Behzti purely on safety grounds.
“The theatre vigorously defends its right to produce Behzti and other similar high quality plays that deal with contemporary issues in a multicultural society. We sincerely hope that the play will be produced again as we are certain that it is a work that should be seen and discussed. It remains a matter of great concern to us that illegal acts of violence can cause cancellation of a lawful artistic work.”
Birmingham Rep was forced to cancel its Saturday evening performances this past weekend after protests against the “anti-Sikh” play Behzti (Dishonour) turned violent. This morning, theatre management was still in discussion with West Midlands Police as to whether or not to continue with the remainder of the play’s run to 30 December. An announcement will be made at press conference held in Birmingham this afternoon.
An estimated 1,000 Sikhs from around the country converged on Birmingham to stage a week of peaceful demonstrations against the world premiere play, which began performances on 9 December 2004 at the Rep’s studio The Door. However, on Saturday evening, when protesters attempted to enter the theatre, tensions escalated. Extra police were called in when protesters stormed the building, pelting walls with eggs, smashing windows, breaking down doors and destroying equipment which, says the theatre, amounts to “thousands of pounds worth of criminal damage”.
A total of 85 police officers, 30 in riot gear, were required to restore order. Performances of both Behzti and the Rep’s main-house Christmas show, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, were called off as more than 800 audience members (largely families with children), staff and other people attending parties in the Rep’s hospitality suites were evacuated from the building. During the ensuing clashes, three of the police officers were injured and three men were arrested, to be released later on bail.
In Behzti - billed as a black comedy involving rape, corruption and murder - Min, unwed and past her prime, accompanies her foul-mouthed widowed mother, Balthir, to the local Sikh temple. Amongst various unwelcome revelations, they learn that Balthir’s late husband had a homosexual affair before killing himself and one of the temple’s elders is implicated in both that as well as the sexual abuse of young women. The story culminates when Balthir and another victim slay the elder with a ceremonial Sikh sword.
Behzti is written by Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, whose first play Behsharam ran, without incident, to full houses at both The Door and London’s Soho Theatre. Protesters say that her new play mocks the Sikh religion and, at the least, argue that the setting should have been moved from a temple to a community centre. Speaking in the Times newspaper, local MP Khalid Mahmood said Behzti aimed to cause maximum offence while chairman of the Council of Sikh Gurdwaras Sewa Singh Mandha said that “it will not help race relations in the city.”
Birmingham Rep, which has mounted numerous productions catering for its multi-cultural population, maintains that it consulted at length with local leaders during the play’s development. As part of these negotiations, the theatre agreed to distribute and, before each performance, read out a statement expressing the Sikh community’s view. A separate press statement issued by the theatre today explained that, “Short of bowing to blatant censorship and cancelling the production, the Rep does not believe it could have done more to enable the community to have the freedom of speech that some of its members clearly wish to deny the playwright.”
The statement continued that “neither the writer nor the theatre is making comment on Sikhism as a faith or the temple as entity”, that the characters are fictional and “are not intended to be representative of the Sikh community” and, that, whatever the circumstances, audiences had the right “to attend the theatre without fear of attack”.
As of this morning, the Rep remained undecided as to whether or not to cancel tonight or other future performances of Behzti. The box office is not currently taking bookings for the play, though they are collecting the names and numbers of interested parties. Those who have already booked are advised to contact the theatre regarding the current status of the performance schedule. The theatre is also organising exchanges or refunds for those in attendance on Saturday night.
- by Terri Paddock