Intolerance is stifling the stage, theatre bosses say

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Intolerance, religious zealotry and political interference were a growing threat to freedom of speech in British theatre, a conference of managers and directors has heard.

Intolerance, religious zealotry and political interference were a growing threat to freedom of speech in British theatre, a conference of managers and directors has heard.

Speaking in the wake of the violent protests that closed the play Bezhti at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre last year, managers across the country yesterday reported increasing problems in presenting controversial work.

John Botteley of the Grand Opera House in Belfast said staff were regularly picketed by groups such as the Free Presbyterians, who objected to productions such as the musical Jesus Christ Superstar or any discussion of homosexuality.

Hamish Glen of the Coventry Belgrade Theatre said he had been forced to resist calls from his local authority to eschew plays of a religious or politically controversial nature.

An Arts Council officer in the West Midlands said she had been contacted by another, unnamed, authority, wanting to know whether its funding agreements forbade works that might cause religious offence. There was no such wording, she had told them, as such a clause would prevent the kind of activity which her organisation wanted to promote.

Other speakers expressed alarm at the situation in Wales, where the Assembly has taken direct control of funding major arts institutions, raising the prospect of "intellectual censorship", speakers feared.

The conference, organised by the Society of London Theatre, the Theatrical Management Association and the Independent Theatre Council in London, heard repeated calls for joint action against the infringements. Richard Lee, of the Jerwood Space in London, said: "I am hugely offended by the way certain sections of certain communities take umbrage at words and ideas. It's nothing short of book-burning and it's to be condemned."

Mr Botteley, of the Belfast Grand, said: "There's a rise in the numbers of people trying to tell us what we can think and what we can do.

"I think as an industry we need to be starting to fight back. My ushers and usherettes are intimidated by people who are shouting at them because we are putting on mainstream work, let alone what will happen when we've got the Tricycle Theatre's Bloody Sunday coming in."

Jonathan Church, artistic director of the Birmingham Rep, said that the biggest mistake it had made was in talking to the Sikh community about Bezhti in a way that suggested the theatre was willing to discuss the content of the work. The play features scenes of rape and violence at a fictional Sikh gurdwara (temple). Sikh leaders claimed that rape would be impossible in such a context.

Mr Church's executive director, Stuart Rogers, said what had become clear during the controversy was there were some people who had no concept of theatre, no understanding of the concept of fiction and who were naturally against freedom of speech. "There is a section of society who don't want a dialogue," Mr Rogers said.

The men also identified for the first time that there was a local party political element to last December's riots, which was "almost as sinister as the religious fundamentalism". Some people had sought to make political capital out of it, Mr Church and Mr Rogers said.

Asked why police had not been willing to enforce the right to free speech, Mr Rogers said they had been "taken by surprise by the relevance of theatre and the relevance of Bezhti".

The executive director added: "Until the point where there were 400 people outside throwing bricks through the window, they were absolutely behind us." Thepolice's priority then became preserving law and order, he said.

However, one potentially positive consequence of the short-lived production, Mr Church said, was that there had been a change of practice in local temples so that young women were not left alone with men. I would encourage everyone to keep taking the risks and not necessarily see it as a failure if the works are taken off," he added.

Janet Steel, who directed Bezhti, admitted she was so shocked by the vehemence of the reaction to the production that she almost felt the need to censor new works she was due to direct.

But in a strange way, Bezhti and its violent closure might do more for freedom of speech than any past legislation, she said. "It showed the world that a female playwright was touching a nerve. She was saying things publicly that needed to be said and she was using theatre to tell that story."

Plays that provoked a reaction

* So enraged was the Sikh community by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's Behzti (Dishonour) that protesters rioted outside the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in December 2004 until managers agreed to withdraw the production. Bhatti and some of the cast members had to go into hiding after receiving death threats for depicting rape and murder in a Sikh temple in the plot of her black comedy.

* Jerry Springer - the Opera, a parody of the American chat show, was written by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas. It took £1.8m in its first eight months but on regional release theatre owners were faced with threats of protests from Christian groups who objected to the portrayal of a Liberace-style Jesus, the sexually explicit plot and the 8,283 swearwords.

* In 1980, the playwright Howard Brenton was targeted by the moralistic campaigner Mary Whitehouse about his play Romans in Britain, which satirised British Army brutality in Northern Ireland. Scenes of homosexual rape and violence led to Whitehouse's unsuccessful attempt to prosecute Brenton and the director Michael Bogdanov under the Sexual Offences Act. The National Theatre intends to show another of Breton's plays this year. They have stated that they will accept no attempts to censor St Paul, which will detail the life of the famous divinity.

* The prolific playwright David Edgar's 1976 production of his play Destiny depicted the rise of the National Front and provoked reaction from right-wing supporters in Britain at the time.

* Dominic Dromgoole, one of Britain's most innovative young directors, was being hotly tipped last night to be the new boss of the Globe Theatre in London. An announcement is expected, possibly as early as today, on who will replace Mark Rylance, who is stepping down as artistic director after 10 years.

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