Theatre: From Behud to Behzti

From Behzti to Behud was a day of fascinating discussion looking at the impact of the events surrounding the production of Gurpreet Bhatti’s play Behzti at the Birmingham Rep Theatre in 2004.

That production was cancelled when protests from some Sikhs turned violent. The event was produced by Index on Arts, at The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, either side of the matinee performance of Behud, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s new play which was inspired by those events in Birmingham. Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti made a rare appearance at the after-show discussion and gave her perspective on the “global brand” that Behzti became. Both discussions were recorded and will be available on line shortly.

Two points in the discussion made a particular impression.

The first returns to the 2004 scenario and the thorny issue of the rights and wrongs of consultation — Birmingham Rep invited members of the Sikh community to view the play before the show opened, which arguably ignited the controversy. Trina Jones from Birmingham maintained throughout the discussion that the theatre had learnt from the mistakes it had maid.

A group of women from Birmingham told the meeting how they felt cheated of the opportunity to see their play Behzti. They deeply regretted that they had not been able to organise a counter-demonstration of women who supported the play and they felt they had failed to make their voice heard at the time.

Another member of the audience pointed out: “Would you consult Catholic priests before putting on a play about sexual abuse in the church? “

The Belgrade learned volumes from what happened in Birmingham. What emerged from the discussion in the morning was the role played by the police in putting on Behud based on the possibility or the fear of it causing offence. We heard from Hamish Glen, artistic director of the theatre, that the police had said the theatre would have to pay thousands of pounds to cover policing and security during the play’s run. In the end the police provided the same levels of policing at no cost, but the theatre had to invest huge amounts of energy and resources to head off the ugly possibility of the cost of policing bill scuppering the production the play. In a financial climate of diminishing resources, will the ability of our theatres to put on controversial plays be determined by the ability to pay policing costs, or enter into lengthy negotiations to demonstrate the rights and wrongs of the situation? Belgrade Theatre, the cast and director of the play Behud all displayed iron will in seeing this play through. But as demonstrated by the recent Moonfleece controversy, there is clearly work to be done to ensure that theatre continues to play its role in reflecting contemporary society, and in influencing, shaping, and interrogating our shared culture.