Thought for the Play

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Censorship of the arts is something that must be resisted, argues Patrick Connellan.

It has been a bad two months for the performing arts. It was also bad for anyone who cares about an artist's freedom of expression because censorship hit the headlines once more.

First there was Tessa Jowell, the minister for culture, imposing a real terms cut of £30 million pounds for the arts. The small increase in arts funding agreed in 2002 allowed some theatre companies to put on challenging new plays and others simply to survive. This whetted the appetite of those who work in the theatre for more. Now it seems that we are going back to the days when plays like Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's Behzti (Dishonour) would not have been commissioned in the first place. This move by New Labour is perhaps the most insidious form of censorship.

Then later in December last year Behzti was taken off at the Birmingham Rep following protests and a mini riot which threatened the play's cast and other theatre workers. Also death threats were being sent to the play's Sikh writer. The Sikh protesters objected to violent scenes in the play being set in a gurdwara (Sikh temple) and to the depiction of the giani (a priest) as an out of touch buffoon. In an attempt to placate the protesters the theatre invited a number of Sikh community leaders to attend a dress rehearsal and discuss what it was that they found offensive to see if the issues could be addressed. No compromise was found so the protests went ahead, peacefully at first, until some of the protesters attacked the theatre. It was to the Birmingham Rep's shame that it felt forced to abandon the play in the face of violent threats.

The latest attempt to muzzle the performing arts has come from thousands of Christians writing to the BBC to complain about the televising of Jerry Springer: The Opera, an opera originally staged at the National Theatre but which is now performing in the West End. They were concerned at the plethora of swear words, or 'profanities' as they chose to call them, and were offended at the depiction of Jesus as slightly camp and wearing a nappy. Fortunately, and to their credit, the BBC decided to ignore these silly protests and go ahead with the transmission.

What is offensive to one person might seem benign, revealing or even liberating to another. The problem with offence taken by someone with a religious faith is that it can sometimes be an intransigent and irrational offence. This is because those with a religious conviction view a world that is seemingly irrational and offer irrational solutions. Look at how many religious leaders have been sent into an inarticulate spin when faced with a human disaster on the scale of the South Asian tsunami.

Nevertheless there is an unwritten tradition in theatre, which roughly mirrors the liberal left in Britain as to what is actually offensive and therefore should be avoided or confronted. It is understood that the vilification or the persecution of any oppressed group should not only be avoided but actively fought against. Unfortunately not everyone understands this. Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National Theatre, got carried away in the light of the Behzti climbdown and enthused that 'it is the job of theatre to offend'. Most theatre practitioners would be worried by that view. That does not mean that theatre should not provoke and challenge an audience, and this is precisely what Behzti was doing.

Fairness and equality

The charge that Bhatti was insensitive towards Sikhs and the sanctity of the gurdwara by setting her play there holds no water. The violent scenes depicting rape and murder that the press reported as defiling the gurdwara were actually offstage and placed in an office and kitchen close to the actual gurdwara. Other scenes were set in the gurdwara but this was clearly a fictional place holding no actual sanctity. It was not the mission of Bhatti, a practising Sikh, to offend or attack Sikhism, quite the opposite. It was her intention to uphold the Sikh values of fairness and equality (the head of Sikhism in India is a woman) and expose what she sees as hypocrisy within the Sikh establishment. By setting the play in and around a gurdwara that hypocrisy is given greater impact and brutality. As the play's content has been so misreported it is worth looking at what it did have to say and why this disturbed and angered some while encouraging others to question religious authority.

Behzti is about a disabled mother and her daughter who live in impoverished conditions. One day the mother's home help, Elvis, an Afro-Caribbean man who is in love with the daughter, takes them all on a rare visit to the gurdwara. The mother is anxious to use the contacts of the chairman of the renovation committee to arrange a marriage for her daughter. It becomes clear that the financially corrupt chairman has been abusing his position for years by raping women who have been sent to him as prospective brides. The abuse seems to have been ignored by the ineffectual and incompetent priest and the exposure of it suppressed among the women. By the end of the play revenge is exacted on the chairman by the women. This is not only a play about exposing abuse but, just as importantly, it is about Sikh women transcending and triumphing over the constraints put on them both by their community and society at large. This is achieved with love, collective action and sharp humour.

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti has been supported by many inside and outside the arts including Salman Rushdie, himself subjected to threats over The Satanic Verses and The Southall Sisters. All support the content of the play as well as the right to artistic expression. As with Behzti, those who have been apparently offended by Jerry Springer: The Opera have misunderstood what the play is actually saying. The purpose of Jerry Springer is not to offend Christian sensibilities but to criticise the values that lie behind banal and demeaning reality shows like Jerry Springer. The repetition of swear words adds to the sense of vacuous confrontation dished up for voyeuristic entertainment. The retribution of Jerry Springer at the end of the opera uses Christian imagery to emphasise that reality shows have become the new religion. If Christian protesters stopped to think for a minute rather than being blinded by their own bigotry, they would realise that Jerry Springer is saying that human beings are better than this and are able to transcend the exploitation of reality television.

Anti-blasphemy law

The Jerry Springer debate seems like a strange attempt to turn the clock back to the days of Mary Whitehouse and her crusade against blasphemy. Few people today are concerned about the evocation of a rarely used anti-blasphemy law as they know that it will not stick in an increasingly secular and non-Christian society. Moreover, for artists, Christian imagery is the property and language of all of us, not just Christians, as we all live in a culture that is steeped in Christian metaphor and symbolism.

Christians have had countless opportunities to scream 'blasphemy' or 'profanity' when confronted with Christian imagery and have been silent. So why now? Could it be that they saw Birmingham Sikhs succeeding and wanted a piece of the action? They have also found some encouragement from the New Labour government. Fiona MacTaggart, the minister for race and equality in the Home Office, rather than condemning the censoring of the arts, described the violent dispute in Birmingham as 'a sign of a lively flourishing cultural life'. I find it difficult to understand how anything can flourish if it is suppressed. Christians would probably also like to remind Fiona MacTaggart and the government that their views and sensibilities should be taken as seriously as other religions when drafting the proposed bill to create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred.

This bill was conjured up in David Blunkett's Home Office in an attempt to protect Muslims who, although Blunkett would not admit it, have become an oppressed religious group since the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq and the detention of Muslims without trial. It is a cynical attempt to win back the Muslim vote to Labour. It is true that the BNP have targeted Muslims as a religious group as well as an ethnic community but it has been shown that it is possible to prosecute Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, with the existing offence of incitement to racial hatred. The danger of legislation to outlaw religious hatred is that it would not only be ineffectual in protecting Muslims but would actually encourage greater persecution by the right and Christian groups against oppressed minorities. It could also take the place of the old blasphemy law to attack artists' freedom of speech.

There has been a history of censorship in the arts, from the Lord Chamberlain's interference in Shakespeare's work through to the Royal Court removing Jim Allen's play Perdition due to Zionist pressure. Now we have the suppression of Behzti. Attempts to silence theatre are not new. It is important that we vigorously defend the long and worthy tradition of theatre being a battleground for the debate of ideas in society.