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Review Round-up: Bhatti's 'Pirandellian' Behud

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Behud (Beyond Belief) by British Sikh writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti opened at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre last week (30 March 2010, previews from 27 March), where it continues until the 10 April ahead of its London transfer to the Soho Theatre (13 April to 8 May).

In December 2004, Bhatti's Behzti hit the headlines when it was sensationally cancelled after protests in Birmingham. Behud is her playful response (not sequel) to the events surrounding Behzti, and the story of an artist struggling to be heard.

Given the original play’s controversy, the regional opening of Behud was greeted with a flurry of critical interest. Bhatti was praised for “stimulatingly confronting the issues head-on” and for the play’s “Pirandellian games about art and reality”. However, several critics felt that overall the play-within-a-play structure was too “tricksy” and stifled the drama to the extent that the “raw meat of theatre becomes a little lost among the root vegetables of reasoning”. All agreed on the importance of the work and its demonstration of the playwright’s “palpable capacity for survival”, suggesting that perhaps the play’s contribution to the importance of free speech makes it impervious to “irrelevant” criticism.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “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” … Bhatti stimulatingly confronts the issues head-on, but there is less dramatic texture than in Behzti … 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.”
  • Jane Edwardes in The Times (three stars) – “Chetna Pandya’s lively Tarlochan Kaur Grewal calls up her characters … John Hodgkinson is wickedly funny as the pretentious artistic director, who talks about supporting the voice of dissent, but is eventually outmanoeuvred by the politicians. Occasionally trapped by the form she has chosen, Bhatti has an impressive ability to see the comedy in such painful events, but her plea to the religious not to fear criticism of their faith rings loud and clear.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “You can see why Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti had to write this play … Bhatti is clearly exorcising her demons and liberating her imagination: the new piece, however, is only intermittently successful as drama. Bhatti audaciously puts herself on stage … What comes across clearly is Bhatti's sense of isolation as her representative on stage confronts a welter of pride, prejudice and ignorance. Bhatti also vividly expresses her sense of betrayal by fellow Sikhs and white liberals … There are big issues lurking within the play but the tricksy structure never gives them sufficient room to breathe … however, I suspect criticism is irrelevant to Bhatti's play: it feels like a necessary staging-post in her future development … a production with passionate conviction … strong, well-defined performances. But, while it is salutary to be reminded of the demagogic rage that silenced Bhatti over Behzti, what really matters is her palpable capacity for survival.”
  • Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph (four stars) – “… measured, clever and crafty … Unless you’re up-to-speed with the facts of the Behzti case, it’s possible you’ll struggle, at least initially, to piece together the theatrical jigsaw of Bhatti’s fictionalised, and self-consciously stylised, re-playing of the episode. And I have to confess to being left overly baffled by the abrupt, ambiguous denouement, something Bhatti and director Lisa Goldman would do well to strengthen. Yet it’s hard not to be impressed by the imaginative vitality and experimental daring of this work, which places the creative process - and the freedom of the artist - at the heart of what often feels like a witty modern-day answer to Pirandello … Besides being remarkably even-handed in its approach to the various arguments swirling around the divisive play in question, what’s finally striking about the show is its humour, pricking pomposity on all sides. There’s strong work across the board but John Hodgkinson is on particularly fine form as the sanctimonious theatre director, while Lucy Briers excels as the self-seeking local politico … A potent, promising comeback. “
  • Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (three stars) - "You might expect the new play to be bitter, but although there is anger in it, it is also wry, self-deprecating and serious in its attempt to grapple with the issues and find apt dramatic form. Rather than write a docu-drama, Bhatti has come up with a surreal Pirandellian comedy, in which Tarlochan, an onstage playwright, has written a controversial play that gets banned ... It is such a highly charged subject, raising so many issues, that the play inevitably begins to feel like a whistle-stop tour ... But shortcomings aside, this is a wise and witty consideration of the dilemma facing any artist who faces the charge of causing offence."

    - Jude Offord

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