Theatre scraps Sikh play over safety fears

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A theatre today abandoned further performances of a controversial play which sparked a mini-riot among Sikhs who claimed it demeaned their religion.

A theatre today abandoned further performances of a controversial play which sparked a mini-riot among Sikhs who claimed it demeaned their religion.

Stuart Rogers, executive director of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, said the venue had been left with no alternative but to end its run of Behzti because of a genuine threat to the safety of theatre-goers.

Speaking at a press conference at the city centre playhouse, he said: "It is now clear that we cannot guarantee the safety of our audiences. Very reluctantly, therefore, we have decided to end the current run of the play purely on safety grounds.

"The theatre vigorously defends its right to produce Behzti and other similar high-quality plays that deal with contemporary issues in a multi-cultural society.

"We sincerely hope that the play will be produced again as we are certain that it is a work that should be seen and discussed."

Mr Rogers said the decision had been taken after further discussions with West Midlands Police and leaders of the Sikh community this morning.

"Sadly, community leaders have been unable to guarantee to us that there will be no repeat of the illegal and violent activities that we witnessed on Saturday," he added.

Mr Rogers stressed that the Rep had two major responsibilities: a commitment to artistic freedom and a duty of care to its audiences, staff and performers.

"It remains a matter of great concern to us that illegal acts of violence can cause the cancellation of a lawful artistic work," he said.

The city centre building was stormed on Saturday night by Sikh demonstrators unhappy at the play's depiction of murder and sexual abuse taking place in a fictional temple.

Doors were damaged, windows smashed, fire alarms set off and backstage equipment was attacked.

The Rep was urged not to abandon the play despite the violence, which led to the audience and other members of the public, including families attending the theatre's Christmas show, to be evacuated from the building.

Three men were arrested on suspicion of public order offences and were released on police bail until the New Year.

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 told the Press Association.

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

"What precedent does this set? Will it happen again when people think peaceful protest is not going to work? Those are the answers we need.

"We were in negotiations with the Rep about a week ago and they didn't budge. That's when they should have budged."

Mr Singh, whose temple is part of the Council of Sikh Gurdwaras in Birmingham, said the massive publicity given to the violence had led to people calling him from around the world.

They included faith representatives in India where people were "outraged" at both the playwright and the Rep.

He said the decision was the right one because of concerns that the publicity would lead to larger, and potentially more violent, demonstrations involving Sikhs from outside Birmingham.

He rejected claims they were stifling free speech, adding: "Free speech can go so far.

"Maybe 5,000 people would have seen this play over the run. Are you going to upset 600,000 thousands Sikhs in Britain and maybe 20 million outside the UK for that?

"Religion is a very sensitive issue and you should be extremely careful."