Behud, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
Thursday 01 April 2010
Secular Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's last stage play, Behzti ("Dishonour"), started a riot at the Birmingham Rep in 2004 when religious Sikhs stormed the theatre in protest against fictitious scenes of rape and violence perpetrated in a holy temple and forced the play's withdrawal.
Bhatti's follow-up, performed without incident in Coventry, was approved by a bunch of Sikh elders at a preview and warmly applauded by a mostly non-Sikh audience at the end; it's in many ways a reappraisal of that unhappy incident and most effective when suggesting her dilemma as a writer.
Which is: how to make the truth more bearable and how to write when they want to stop you. Bhatti places herself at the centre of Behud as a fraught writer, played by an energetic Chetna Pandya, submitting a play called Gund ("Filth") at a theatre not all that dissimilar to the Birmingham Rep.
Anyone who's read Behzti knows that it's a rivetting play about secular attitudes to religious heritage, not remotely blasphemous except in an interestingly serious way, and primarily about a Sikh mother/daughter relationship; and it's also a whole lot better than Behud.
The mistake in Birmingham was to invite the elders in to "give clearance" on a controversial scenario set in a holy temple; why would you invite a Catholic priest to approve a play about abortion, or child molestation (whoops, sorry)? But here, an onstage banner proclaiming "Shame on Sikh Playwright for her Corrupt Imagination" seems feeble, and nobody's squirming.
The subject matter of Gund echoes that of the awkward sexuality in Behud without replicating its sharpness or danger. Instead, the focus shifts to a satire on community objections to the piece, and the flim-flammery of the multiculturally comatose Arts Council and the theatre's artistic director.
Doubling up as this non-testicular bi-polar cultural commissar, John Hodgkinson is as hilarious as the lines allow (not all that far) as both paymaster and cringing mediator, a director who's lived in the area for 16 months and knows the way the wind (mostly his own) lies. Bhatti's case against these guys would be a whole lot stronger if her own play was.
To 10 April (024 7655 3055; Belgrade.co.uk); Soho Theatre, London W1 (020 7478 0100; Sohotheatre.com) 13 April to 8 May.
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