The Secular Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's last stage play, Behzti (Dishonour), started a riot at the Birmingham Rep in December 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 after a handful of performances.
Bhatti's follow-up, performed without incident in Coventry last night, 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, called Tarlochan Kaur Grewal, played by an energetically committed 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 riveting 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 merely 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, in Lisa Goldman's neat but tentative production on a bare white stage surrounded by 11 doors (designed by Hannah Clark, lit by Richard G Jones), 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, bipolar, cultural commissar, John Hodgkinson is as hilarious as the lines allow (not all that far) as both pay-master 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.
Still, her meditation on her previous crisis is never less than interesting, and she vents her own frustration in allowing Tarlochan to declare that she'd rather give Nick Griffin of the BNP a blow job than make any further artistic compromises. And she touches on wider issues by suggesting that artistic "creatives" have now been outstripped by commentators; do we regard John Humphrys and Simon Jenkins more highly than we do Tom Stoppard and Alan Bennett?
I like the way Bhatti writes poetically: books are burned, girls are bound in their underwear, her new play is put on without a proper ending (Alan Bennett certainly knows that feeling). So, good on her open mind and big heart. I just wish that what we did have was better. But there's a chance it might improve before arriving at the Soho Theatre in London in mid April.