Soho Theatre Spring 2010
In 2004 the Birmingham Repertory Theatre put on Behzti, a play by British Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti that so offended the local Sikh community that there were protests and violent demonstrations.
Citing fear for the safety of its workers and audiences, the theatre cancelled the run of the show. It was not the Birmingham Rep's finest hour.
Now Bhatti has written a new play, Behud ('Beyond Belief') offering her partly imaginary version of the events.
In her view the offending play itself very quickly became irrelevant as everyone involved - the luvvie theatre director, an oily local politician, a 'responsible' Sikh community leader, a more radical activist, a yellow journalist, some bumbling cops, even the playwright herself – followed their own agendas, each using this battle to position themselves better for the next battle or career move to come along.
It's a convincing argument, presented with a mix of outrage and bemused satire, and one is willing to overlook the special pleading that makes the playwright an innocent and generally irrelevant bystander to events.
(This play mentions, but doesn't dwell on the fact that the protesters had offered a compromise - moving one scene out of a Sikh temple into a community centre - that Bhatti refused even to consider.)
As well as telling her version of the story, Bhatti turns this play into metatheatre, a play about the writing of itself.
The onstage 'playwright' composes scenes and watches as they play out, interrupting, cancelling and rewriting as she changes her mind, creating the comedy of actors having to back up and replay a moment or change personalities in mid-scene as she revises.
Inevitably, the play she's inventing before our eyes takes on a life of its own, as the characters begin refusing to follow her rewrites and she finds herself part of a plot she isn't controlling.
That metatheatrical overlay might occasionally be a bit too clever (and a little too proud of its cleverness) for its own good - I think we could have lived without the comic cops - but it does serve as an effective metaphor for the way the real life events developed their own momentum that nobody could control.
Director Lisa Goldman juggles the play's several tones and levels of reality effectively while creating some evocative stage images, and Chetna Pandya holds our emotional identification and sympathy as she takes the playwright character through her Alice-in-Wonderland journey.
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Review of Behud - Soho Theatre 2010