New theatre offers to stage Sikh play

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A theatre company will today attempt to secure a new venue for a controversial play which was dropped after members of the Sikh community claimed it demeaned their religion.

A theatre company will today attempt to secure a new venue for a controversial play which was dropped after members of the Sikh community claimed it demeaned their religion.

Officials at the Birmingham Stage Company said they would be prepared to put on the play, Bezhti, after the Birmingham Repertory Theatre scrapped the production.

Their decision on safety grounds followed disturbances on Saturday night at the venue.

The play depicts scenes of rape and violence at a fictional Sikh temple.

Neal Foster, actor-manager of the Birmingham Stage Company, said he was looking to discuss the matter with officials from the Rep and other venues in the city with a view to staging the play.

He added he hoped the Rep would change its decision.

But if it did not, his organisation, which is based at the Old Rep theatre in the city, would be prepared to put on the play.

"The story cannot end here. I will be willing to produce the play in Birmingham. I think freedom of expression is more important than health and safety."

He claimed West Midlands Police were prepared to fulfil their responsibilities and protect the theatre for the remainder of the play's run.

But he believed the Rep had been "hasty" in its decision, adding: "As far as I am concerned, the theatre's responsibility is to protect freedom of expression."

He said: "I have full respect for the Sikh community. I did a production with them last year. I can fully understand their position.

"But that doesn't entitle violence to be used to stop something being shown."

Any production of the play with his involvement would be carried out with full consultation with faith leaders and their right to protest and explain their position fully.

The Birmingham Rep earlier defended its decision to abandon the run following the protests, which led to three men being arrested for alleged public order offences. They were later released on police bail.

Stuart Rogers, the theatre's executive director, said the board had no option after Sikh community leaders could not give them assurances there would be no repeat of the violence.

He said the decision, which was later backed by the Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour leaders on Birmingham City Council, had been taken solely to ensure public safety.

"We are determined not to go down the road of censorship but when one stands in the foyer with 800 women and children and sees stones being thrown and police officers injured, then security and safety issues come to the fore. They have to," he explained.

The protesters claim the black comedy, which has a cast of seven, demeans Sikhism by depicting rape and murder taking place in a fictional temple.

The writer of the play, actress-turned-playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, has declined to speak to the media but has been informed of the decision.

Mohan Singh, from the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in south Birmingham, welcomed the decision.

But he said the Rep could have avoided the disturbances more than a week ago.

"It's a sad fact, but it's a very good thing that they have seen common sense on the issue," he said.

"But the fact of the matter is that it has taken things to become violent before it happened."

The decision was condemned as a blow for freedom of speech and expression by groups including the performers' union Equity and the Index on Censorship.

Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris, who is also a honorary associate of the National Secular Society, described the Rep's cancellation as a "black day for freedom of expression".

But Arts minister and Birmingham Yardley MP Estelle Morris said she fully supported the Rep in how they had handled this "very sensitive situation".

She added: "It is a cornerstone of our democracy that freedom of speech and artistic expression - within the law - should be defended at all times.

"But the Rep also has responsibilities for the safety of their audiences and the security of the their staff.