Encore Theatre Magazine
:: Thursday, December 30, 2004 ::
Several responses to the cancellation of Behzti (Dishonour) have kept consciousness of this outrage alive over the festive period. As Paul Miller points out on his blog Clare Cochrane's letter in today's Guardian is really excellent and cuts through some of the weasel words expressed elsewhere. Principally she's responding to a letter from John Adams, of Bristol University, who rightly thinks that theatre companies should engage in debate with their communities, but wrongly thinks this in any sense lessens the injustice of what happened the Bhatti's play.
His letter contains some very shoddy thinking. He begins with a meaningless claim that it is "disturbing and unhealthy" to find "unanimity on the part of an essentially anarchic group of creative practitioners". Whether theatre workers are essentially anarchic or essentially anything else has not, to Encore's knowledge, yet been settled to everyone's satisfaction so we can only interpret that as an opening statement that wishes to defend theatre's radicalism in an even more radical way: a type of ultra-leftism that leads to an idiotic nowhere, as anyone who's spent time in left-wing meetings will recognise. He then claims that "artistic freedom" and "censorship" are crude terms to throw about. No they're not: freedom is a particular indivisible value and censorship in this case is undeniable. It is clear that John Adams has no real understanding of what freedom means when he urges the Birmingham Rep to consider "the extent to which the right to stage certain works in a certain context has been earned rather than assumed". But this is preposterous. Rights don't have to be earned; they are rights and they pertain to us as human beings.
In an article by Harriet Swain, Yasmine Wilde, who played the put-upon Min in Behzti (Dishonour), describes how the Rep's decision to consult with members of the Sikh community perhaps gave the impression that they could veto any aspect of the play. This may be correct though we should be careful to remember that nothing the Rep did could have given the impression that it was acceptable to terrorize staff and audience, and smash windows in the theatre. Towards the end of the article, Wilde is quoted saying that "the play was misunderstood and was in fact 'very religious'. very 'pro-God', and written by 'a good Sikh'". She also rebuked criticisms of the play by the Bishop of Birmingham, asserting that "The message of the play isn't 'isn't religion awful'. It's about how human frailty can take you away from what's true about your religion". This may be true, and certainly a play that is prefaced by the dedication "I thank God for the gift of your soul, my beloved, most treasured friend" seems unlikely to be embracing deliberate, mischievous impiety.
But, forgive us, that's not the point. If Behzti had sought to criticize religion as a whole, condemn believers as dupes and priests as charlatans, if it had described God as a con, and piety as a cloak to hide vice, exploitation, and criminality, it should also be defended. It would sit within a wholly honourable tradition of anti-religious writings, including a long line of savagely impious plays. That the play may have been misunderstood is important - and we'd urge all our Encore readers to get hold of the text to read - but there is no reason why one particular set of beliefs, e.g. religious faith, should be any more protected than any other from criticism. As Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters argues in her brilliant letter, protecting religion from criticism will do nothing to protect those who are oppressed by religion within those faith communities.