Behud (Beyond Belief) is Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s response, rather than sequel, to her own play, Behzti (Dishonour), and the events surrounding its withdrawal by the Birmingham Rep after Sikh protestors stormed the theatre in December 2004.
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.