A new play in Coventry, opening tonight, takes the unusual step of referring to a play by the same author five years ago.
It had been cancelled at the Birmingham Rep after Sikh protesters stormed the theatre, broke windows, and threatened violence against staff and public alike. Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play Behzti (which means "dishonour") featured scenes of rape, violence and murder in a Sikh temple and prompted the backlash on 18 December 2004.
Bhatti's new play – she has been writing non-stop ever since and has lately given birth to her first child – Behud (which means "without limits") features the playwright as a character trying to make sense of the past by visiting "the darkest corners of her imagination". The playwright, 41, had to go into hiding after Behzti but she still sees her job in theatre as one of provoking people, and pours scorn on what she terms "Enid Blyton Asian plays where everyone loves each other in the end".
Behud will show a writer trying to complete a play while also trying to meet the demands of incensed community leaders, troubled local councillors and an excitable director; the characters finally rebel in this task and dismiss the dramatist.
Bhatti's director, the only moderately excitable Lisa Goldman, artistic director of the Soho Theatre in London, where Behud will play after its run at the Belgrade Theatre, is anxious not to set off any more alarm bells. "The new play sets out to explain a controversy," she says, "rather than create a new one."
The great thing about theatre in the past was always that it got people into trouble. Ben Jonson went to prison for making rude remarks about the Scots in Eastward Hoe. The avant-garde playwright Federico Garcia Lorca was hounded and vilified (and probably murdered) by the Spanish authorities in 1936. Neither Jonson nor Lorca would be read or performed today if they had not upset the authorities and the puritans.
But the situation is further complicated today by the fact that the pieties of multiculturalism and "faith" mania make it virtually impossible to say anything at all, even metaphorically, that is critical of religious fundamentalism without arguments for free speech being tempered with the reasonable liberal concern about offending religions.
The Christian churches have had to learn to live with almost routine debunking and criticism, from the earliest medieval morality plays to the Irish renaissance of J M Synge, Sean O'Casey and Brendan Behan. And in mainland Europe, writers such as Jean Genet and Fernando Arrabal have perverted Christian rituals into dramatic statements of erotic desire and sexual liberation.
It always boils down to blasphemy. But even Christian theatregoers have accepted that a little blasphemy is good for the soul. The seeming outrages of the past were invariably perpetrated by people who had never even seen the shows in question. Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain (1980) – against which the late Mary Whitehouse brought a private prosecution (which collapsed on its first day in court) over the simulated buggery of a few Druids by the invading Roman soldiers, was a metaphor of British colonialism in Ireland. Jerry Springer: the Opera (2003), which featured Jesus Christ in a nappy and whose television broadcast prompted a similar complaint (an attempt to bring charges of blasphemy was thrown out by the High Court), was a genuine, admittedly filthy, satirical experiment in musical theatre in a television chat-show age.
In the storm over Behzti, a senior Sikh protested that in a Sikh temple, "kissing does not take place, homosexual activity doesn't take place, murders do not take place", as if any play would set out merely to reflect the everyday reality of a religious institution. What would be theatrical about that? It's not even a question of "free speech" being allowed to go "so far"; it's a question of dramatic licence and metaphorical excess, legitimate areas of activity for any British or Asian playwright, religious or not.
The implications of the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses in 1989 has echoed through the theatre ever since, erupting horribly five years ago on that night in Birmingham; when it comes to religion, we really do live in dangerous and censorious times.
Only a few days after the riot at the Rep, the Irish playwright Gary Mitchell – who goes against the grain of most contemporary Irish playwriting by analysing tensions within Ulster's sectarian Protestant majority – was forced to flee his own house with his family; his pensioner parents, too, were forced to abandon their home of 50 years.
If you don't like something, or somebody, or you disagree with them, you can always register a protest, write letters, go on a march. But increasingly there's a nasty air of violent intimidation about the offended parties. And the Muslim and Sikh minorities are going to have to learn the lessons of civilised conformity that govern debate and expressions of difference, even where insult and critical exaggeration are concerned.
There were two more flurries early last year. First, Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children, a hasty response to events in the Gaza Strip, was attacked by dozens of prominent British Jews – had they seen or read it? – in a letter to The Daily Telegraph, accusing Churchill of producing work that enforced "false stereotypes". It did no such thing, but expressed a general grief drained of political tub-thumping.
And then Richard Bean's England People Very Nice was the first play in the National Theatre's history to prompt disruptive interference during a pre-show talk with the author when a playwright and a teacher jumped on to the stage and heckled loudly until they were thrown out by security guards.
The play itself was a riotous chronicle of immigration in the East End of London which portrayed incestuous, drunken Irishmen, arrogant Huguenots, farcical Jewish anarchists, bonkers Bangladeshis and Muslim hoodlums, as well as a mad mullah who ranted on about how women must remain subservient to men.
The piece, which was directed by the National's (Jewish) artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, was labelled by its opponents as "offensive towards ethnic minorities, particularly the Irish and Bangladeshis", a reading that totally misread the arts of lampoon and caricature as weapons of racism. The play was in fact a satirical history of multiculturalism. Theatre is a playground of ideas and exaggerations, not a rational forum with responsibilities towards fair play or historical truth.
Freedom of speech carries with it a freedom to insult; otherwise, as Tom Stoppard says, it's not a freedom worth having. Bhatti's first play was not based on any real-life case history, but offered as an extreme allegory of hypocrisy. And as a Sikh herself, who is she to be denied that privilege?
It says much about the state we're in that her new play comes with explicit support from campaign groups Index on Censorship, English PEN and Free World. Robert Sharp of PEN says that the Sikhs who took exception to Behzti (and many prominent Sikhs didn't) should remember that when you are satirised or criticised, then you're relevant, you've arrived. But is there any limit to the offence a theatrical play can cause, or should there be?
"None at all," says Sharp, "except perhaps from a clear incitement to violence. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are sister rights. There is neither in China or Iran. People here should respond to things they don't like by writing reviews, or writing their own plays."
And, slightly defusing any potential repeat of the trouble five years ago, Lisa Goldman emphasises that Bhatti's new play is "compassionate and humorous". "It is not an angry rant about what happened, but it does have a satirical edge," she says. "You never know, anyway, what will cause offence. If you go looking for it, you invariably find it."
Behud plays at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, 27 March to 10 April (024-7655 3055); Soho Theatre, London 13 April to 8 May (020-7478 0100)
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