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An Actor's Personal View from Onstage

The reassuring plop of a large envelope landing in my hallway heralded my first acquaintance with ‘Behzti’ (Dishonour) by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. It reminded me of how I felt when I first saw Munch’s painting, ‘The Scream’, and I found myself deeply moved by the overwhelming sense of pain underlying the poetry of unmistakeable truth.

And so it was that I agreed to take on the challenge of trying to portray the head of a Gurudwara (Sikh temple) renovation committee who abuses the psychological hold he has, by raping, within the confines of his office, the devout daughter of his former homosexual lover. He is murdered, and our heroine ultimately finds some salvation thanks to her abiding faith in God and the love of a younger Afro-Caribbean man.

In the first week of rehearsals, we were instructed by our employers (Birmingham Rep) to give a reading of the play to members of the Sikh community. The objections to the play, as stated by their so-called representatives, all male, seemed to boil down to:

“It is unacceptable and insulting to all Sikhs to have a black man kissing a Sikh woman”

“It is unacceptable for a Sikh to be shown as a homosexual”

“While the play is brilliant artistically, it is unacceptable for it to be set in the environs of a Gurudwara”

My unease grew during the remaining short rehearsal period, not least because of threats of a campaign to stop all public funding to the theatre unless the play was withdrawn or altered.

One afternoon, the theatre arranged for me and some colleagues to be driven to the main Sikh Gurudwara in Birmingham. When we arrived, we were informed that we were not welcome there, and that we should leave immediately.

We then drove to another, smaller Gurudwara nearby where we received the usual warm welcome that I have otherwise always experienced in places of worship. The Giani, being one who devotes himself to the study of the holy book of Sikhism, talked to me about the fallibility of all human beings, and about the unfortunate hypocrisy of many “suit wallahs” who abuse their positions of trust and who exist in all religions. He reminded me that the ninth Guru of Sikhism, because he exercised freedom of speech, had been executed by a Muslim Emperor. He then, in a touching act that felt like a blessing, tied my turban for me – the same turban that I wore at every performance of the play that was to be allowed to take place.

During the rehearsals we had decided, for artistic reasons, that neither the rape nor the murder would actually be depicted on stage. All references in the play to Sikhism were positive, and none of that faith’s fundamental principles or its revered Gurus was being attacked. Also, the devotion of the playwright to God and to her particular religion was plain for all to see. I myself have an irrational belief in God, believing as I do that faith, like happiness, is an ideal not of reason but of the imagination. Therefore, I believed the objections to the play were like the proverbial storm in a tea-cup. How very wrong I was.

After the dress-rehearsal, a chilling, outwardly calm voice speaking in Punjabi could be heard clearly berating the playwright with hurtful abuse and extraordinary threats.

Just before the half hour call for our first performance to a paying audience, we were informed that before every performance, a statement written by lawyers for the protesting Sikhs would be read out, and that every member of the audience would also receive, on entrance to the theatre, a document about Sikhism. Further, “small” groups of Sikhs were to be permitted to protest outside and distribute their own leaflets. Apparently in return, the “leaders” of the Sikhs would do their best to control the “hot heads” in their community and to dissuade them from any disruption to the lawful business of the theatre.

After each one of the performances, I spoke to many members of the audience, quite a few of them Sikhs. It was very noticeable that women were the most vocal in support of the play, although one Sikh woman said to me rather wistfully after she had apparently seen the play for the second time: “Everything in this play rings true but I can’t discuss it with my father, my husband or my son, and if I can’t discuss it with the people I love and share my life with, what hope is there? Gurpreet Kaur must be a very brave woman, obviously a true Sikh, but she has taken a very big risk”.

Aware of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s statement that all riots are fundamentally the voice of the unheard, I made a particular effort to speak to many of the protestors. Some of the comments made to me included:

“It is a matter of Sikh pride, innit”

“We won our right to wear turbans instead of helmets because we are special. We can even carry kirpans (daggers) yeh. The police can’t touch us, right, because they are too scared of us”

“The British Empire owes us Sikhs too much to meddle with us. Look what happened to Indira Gandhi when she tried”

“We will stop this white man’s theatre, you wait and see, we are organising and it will all kick off sooner than you may think”.

Before the eleventh performance of the play on Saturday evening, I observed the Sikh demonstrators arriving and steadily growing in number. Several hundred were now gathered outside, standing behind police barricades.

What started as a carnival-like atmosphere was slowly but surely turning into something quite ugly to behold. Groups of young men were standing around in balaclavas and black gloves. There were some in orange turbans – I have since been told that they believe in a separate nation state for the Sikhs. There were men openly wearing long swords, admittedly in their sheaths, contributing to the atmosphere of intimidation. There were older men in black or blue turbans rushing around talking into mobile telephones. There were elderly men in white turbans and beards, on both sides of the barricades, some with video cameras, and there was orchestrated, rhythmic chanting. Soon eggs and other objects were being thrown at the theatre building.

Going through the foyer, I saw young men at the front of the mob trying to storm the building, some breaking in and lashing out at the police trying to restrain them. There was a lot of noise including that of shattering glass, and both entrances to the front of the theatre were under siege. In the pandemonium, I tried to help the other theatre staff to shepherd terrified people, many of them children, up the stairs. When I got backstage, I saw and heard more chaos. The stage door had been broken down and I was later informed that expensive equipment had been damaged. One female actor was trying to calm another who was hysterical, worried about the unborn child that she was carrying.

After what seemed like an interminably long time, all 800 people in the theatre building were eventually evacuated. Obviously it was impossible to perform that night, and I was advised to check into a secure hotel for my own safety that weekend.

Birmingham suddenly no longer felt like a beacon of multiculturalism, but a place full of separate communities all uncomprehending and resentful of each other. I thanked some policemen and policewomen for risking injury in our protection and wondered what pressures the lone Sikh policeman, that I had seen earlier, was under. Later that night, a Sikh woman, introducing herself as a “Brummie born and bred”, apologised to me for the “thugs” in her community, begged me not to think unkindly of Sikhs in general, and expressed the fear that this was going to make race relations worse in Britain. The drumming and the chanting, now muted, continued outside the Symphony Hall.

On the Monday, the Artistic Director of Birmingham Rep told us that the leaders of the Sikh community were unable to guarantee that there would be no repetition of what had happened on Saturday night, when people – members of the public on their Christmas outing, and staff – in the theatre felt bullied and threatened by the violent acts of some Sikh demonstrators who had also committed criminal trespass and damage. The police were unable to guarantee total security in the circumstances. Therefore the Theatre Board had been forced to call off all the remaining scheduled performances of ‘Behzti’.

The public debate since then seems to have concentrated on the one question of freedom of speech versus religious sensibility. Isn’t the limitation on speech designed to lead to violence, affray or public disorder already supposed to be enshrined in British law? Can the might of the Law be used to change attitudes?

As one Sikh male playwright has suggested, does it not inevitably lead one to wonder what the religious “leaders” of the Sikhs are trying to hide?

Am I alone in thinking that arts’ organisations should re-examine their policies of contemporary multiculturalism? Is “separate or parallel development” sometimes a convenient excuse to discriminate against and segregate those from ethnic minority backgrounds in a form of cultural apartheid, while appearing piously liberal at the same time?

Are some liberals trying to eat their cake and have it, by proclaiming that free speech is necessary in principle while arguing that, in practice, one should give up that right because of the need to appease minority religious sensibilities? This has been described with exquisite politeness by John Mortimer as “tiptoeing around, doing our best not to irritate other people by disagreeing with their opinions”. Does freedom of speech not include the right to irritate, annoy, dismay and shock anyone who listens?

Are people unable these days to walk away from a play they dislike, or turn off any offending TV programme, by using their God-given gift of free will, or do we need yet another piece of ill thought-out pragmatism from the nanny State?

But was the violence about perceived religious offence, or was it really about politics and power? Was there a lack of political will, due to “cultural sensitivity” within Birmingham City Council, to ensure that bullying must not be allowed to succeed over law and order?

If religious leaders can cite the will of God as determining what individuals can or cannot do in a multi-faith society, can they pick those interpretations of His Will they find politically expedient? Cannot such leaders then, as Joan Bakewell has reminded us, invoke the most horrendous retribution on those who don’t comply, especially women – the parameters of whose “lives, morals, even clothing” can be set out by religious decree?

Should religious bureaucracies be exempt from criticism or ridicule, on the grounds that any questioning of their behaviour is equivalent to criticism of the religion itself? In any event, shouldn’t one be free to criticise religions, especially when most of them state that theirs is the only true path to salvation and therefore, by implication, all others are wrong? And, what about the rights of those with little or no faith?

When will we ever debate the prejudices within and between minority ethnic communities? Is ‘identity’ merely about discovering and accepting the orthodoxy of the moment, or do reason and choice play a part?

At the time, the silence from funding organisations like the Arts Council of England, and the industry trades unions such as Equity, the MU, BECTU, the Writers’ Guild et al, was deafening.

The playwright has since had to have police protection after threats against her personal security and her very life, and I gather that her nearest and dearest have had to endure intolerable pressures.

Should we now be tolerant of intolerance, or should we call (as I now do) for more voices, from any race, gender, creed, sexual or political orientation, to speak out in support of what Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti symbolises? Should we not answer the curtailment by religious bigots of her right to free speech, with more speech about our cherished values and the many issues arising from this brave Sikh woman daring to write what is, ironically, a profoundly moral play? Or, shall we be stereotypically British about the whole thing, sweep all the facts under the proverbial carpet so as not to inflame militant sections of religious or other groups, and hope that it will all simply go away?

But then I am neither a politician nor a religious fanatic – thank God.

Versions of this essay can be read in :

“Free Expression is No Offence”, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, an English PEN book published by Penguin; “Catalyst”, edited by Olivia Skinner, the new magazine from the Commission for Racial Equality; and “Equity”, edited by Martin Brown, the magazine of British Equity.

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