Judging by the character of the theatre director in her play (at the time, it was Jonathan Church), Bhatti retains a low opinion of this climb-down and uses Behud as a sort of meditation on the pressures on a writer like herself to be “positive” or “helpful”; at one point Chetna Pandya as the playwright pulls a gun on her own company: “I was just trying something.”
The controversy hasn’t died down exactly, but it seems to have taken a snooze in Coventry, although previews have attracted a large police presence. Lisa Goldman’s snappy production articulates the problem by having it both ways: as a protest for free speech and as a statement by “an exotic ethnic” who makes the establishment feel “multicultural”.
The “play within a play”, ironically titled Gund (Filth) contains scenes of violence and sexual oppression; the outer discussion rehearses the censorious objections, including the demand to relocate the action (as in Behzti) from a temple to a community centre.
The whole thing – presented in the Belgrade’s sleek new studio theatre – is set in a white limbo designed by Hannah Clark with 11 doors and played with brio by the defiant Pandya and six others as various councillors, theatre folk, fictional characters and a mild-mannered elderly Sikh (Ravin J Ganatra) who is concerned about shame in his culture.
Bhatti stimulatingly confronts the issues head-on, but there is less dramatic texture than in Behzti, even if her three plays – the first, Behsharam (Shameless), was at the Soho Theatre and Birmingham Rep in 2001 – now comprise a highly significant chapter in British Asian theatre writing.
Avin Shah, Priyanga Burford (as the actress) and Shiv Grewal (who burns the play in a bucket) declare their positions with some fervour, while Lucy Briers and John Hodgkinson bring a comic edge to their white liberal hand-wringing and shilly-shallying. I like the fact that Bhatti is both passionate and patient in her documentation of the problems. But the raw meat of theatre is a little lost among the root vegetables of reasoning.
(reviewed at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry)