A cultural summit, however, has been hastily scheduled in the wake of religious protests that led to the cancellation of the play at the Birmingham Rep Theatre. The show depicts a rape and a murder in a Sikh temple. It provoked riots outside the theatre by hundreds of angry Sikhs, until the theatre agreed to cancel the rest of the play’s run.
That has, of course, sparked a widespread debate about the potential curbing of freedom of speech principles. Other theatres were considering staging the play (and may still be) — and those considering the coordinated rehearsed readings included the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Bush and Royal Court in London — as a protest against the incident.
On Dec. 22, the Commission for Racial Equality and Arts Council England announced talks for early in 2005. According to the Guardian newspaper, the CRE chairman, Trevor Philips, has said that the summit plans to bring together community, artistic and cultural leaders to discuss what to do in the future when a work of art causes offence. “It’s not an attempt to lay limits to free speech or artistic expression,” he told the paper, “but to find a way of talking that does not involve bricks going through people’s windows.”
An open letter of complaint (published in the Guardian newspaper) about the violent Sikh demonstrations and the play’s cancellation has been signed by hundreds of the UK’s most high-profile arts figures. Among them are Sheila Hancock, Prunella Scales, Timothy West, Nick Starr (executive director of the National Theatre), Terry Jones, Andrew Motion (the UK’s poet laureate), Richard Eyre, Willy Russell, Sonia Friedman, Steven Pimlott, Michael Attenborough, Michael Blakemore, Miriam Margolyes, Jude Kelly and Arnold Wesker.
The letter says, among other things, “We deplore the violent events that have very regrettably led to the cancelling of the remaining performances of Behsti (Dishonour) . . . on grounds of the safety of the audience, performers and staff of the theatre. We all have the right to protest peacefully if a work of art offends us. We do not have the right to use violence and intimidation to prevent that work of art from being seen by others. To verbally and physically threaten a writer, audience members, performers and theatre staff is unacceptable. To attempt to censor a play because some incidents in it would thereby be rendered less offensive to some people if they were set elsewhere is unacceptable. To stop the production of a work of art by means of force and continued threats of force is unacceptable. To make death threats against a writer and a writer’s relatives is illegal . . . Those who use violent means to silence (debate) must be vigorously opposed and challenged by all of us, whatever our faith, belief or opinions.”