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A CurtainUp London London Review
Behud (Beyond Belief)

And now this girl, one of our own, hurts us more than we can bear. Doesn't matter whether the Goreh* call you Paki or Bin Laden. Their words are nothing compared to the suffering her words are causing. — Mr Sidhu *(Hindi word for foreigners or white people)
Behud (Beyond Belief)
Chetna Pandya as Tarlochan Kaur Grewal (Photo: Robert Day)
In December 2004 a play being put on at Birmingham Rep was closed by a riot outside the theatre. Behud or Beyond Belief is the story of that play.

The original play was called Behzti or Dishonour and written by a young woman playwright of Sikh origin, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. It was about a man who, abusing his position as a trusted marriage broker, raped one of the potential brides in his offices in a Gurdwara or Sikh temple. He is eventually murdered by the woman's mother with a ritual sword in the temple. Nick Hobbes ŠJohn Good's account in the Soho's programme notes tells us that the theatre consulted with the local Sikh community before the play opened because it was expected that it would be controversial. Two young members of the Sikh community attended a read through before rehearsals. The response was generally positive but it was felt by the Sikhs that it would be better to move the place where the rape and murder took place to a Community Centre rather than the holy temple.

The playwright and the artistic director of the theatre demurred. A dress rehearsal was held with members of the audience including local government councillors, members of the Arts Council and local Sikhs. There were ugly scenes later when the playwright was verbally accused by some of the Sikh representatives. The Press Night on December 13th went well with nothing to report but on December 16th the number of protestors had increased. By Saturday 18th there was a much larger protest group; protestors had been bussed into Birmingham from across the country. The police were there as were large numbers of television crews. A small group stormed the theatre, smashing windows and making their way back stage where some equipment was damaged. Three police officers were hurt and four people were arrested.

The theatre's executive director Stuart Rogers made this statement, "Sadly community leaders have been unable to guarantee us that there will be no repeat of the illegal and violent activities we witnessed on Saturday. It is now clear that we cannot guarantee the safety of our audiences. Very reluctantly, therefore, we have decided to end the current run of the play purely on safety grounds." The theatre's Christmas production in the main house was expecting 800 parents and children who could have been caught up in the protest.

Behud has never been given a full staging in the UK although it has played in France and in other parts of the world.

Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's latest play takes a fictional playwright, Tarlochan Kaur Grewal (Chetna Pandya) at the fictional Writers' Theatre, who is in the exact situation Ms Bhatti found herself in, in December 2004. We know it's later than 2004 because a reference is made to the 2009 film Slumdog Millionaire and the supposed familiarity with Indian culture held by white people because they have seen a single film or cooked from Madhur Jaffrey's cookery books. We meet two plodding members of the local constabulary who are assigned to guard her, (John Hodgkinson and Avin Shah), three members of the Sikh community (Avin Shah, Ravin J Gantra and Shiv Grewal) and Prya Burford who doubles as a news anchorwoman and as Baby, the girl who is abused in Tarlochan's play. Shiv Grewal plays the man who abuses Baby.

Lisa Goldman's production is lively and delivered in almost a light hearted but news reportage format. We see the discussions where it is suggested that if the venue were to be moved from the temple to a less religious building, the protestors would fall away. So this play becomes about theatrical censorship which England got rid off just before the first time opening of Hair in 1968. Strangely in 2004, another religious based group was making its feelings felt about the theatrical blasphemy of Jerry Springer the Opera which was pulled from many regional theatres after Christian churches organised protests and threatened to boycott other productions at those theatres which booked the touring production.

In Behud, the playwright refuses to cut the temple scenes. She says her play is about the intrinsic refusal of the community to allow exposure of the crime in their midst and that her point is that, even in the holy of holies, there is no protection for the little girl from evil. She wants to expose the hypocrisy of the Sikh community. We are reminded too of a real life case of child abuse in an Orthodox Jewish community in North London where the family that reports the teenage babysitter to the police is ostracised and persecuted in the most harrowing way imaginable.

There are some fine characterisations: Chetna Pandya as the holed up playwright, isolated in rooms above the theatre and dependent on the police to remember to bring her food, John Hodgkinson as the tight lipped, peeved and camp Artistic Director trying to marry diversity and independence and Lucy Briers as Joanne Stevenson, a mealy mouthed Labour councillor, cutting political deals before an election five months later. There are surreal moments too, which make Behud fun, when the writer rewinds her script and zaps her characters if they seem to be getting away from the focus of her storyline.

The white set with its ten white doors allows scene switches without scene changes by exiting some and allowing others to enter or leaving a door ajar so one actor can watch the others while partially concealed. The temple is conveyed by a laid out white sheet and the women in saris covering their heads and kneeling to pray. The Sikhs have a conversation about the playwright and she can interject because she is writing it, although they don't see or hear her.

Behud is that perfect play, stimulating, provocative and with lighter moments. I also suspect it's a very better play that Behtzi but the issue is we are not allowed to see Behtzi and that is a community imposing its will on others. What is certain is that without the riot, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti would not have commanded so much press coverage.

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Behud (Beyond Belief)
Written by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti
Directed by Lisa Goldman

Starring: Chetna Pandya, Shiv Grewal
With: Avin Shah, John Hodgkinson, Priyanga Burford, Ravin J Ganatra, Lucy Briers
Design: Hannah Clarke
Lighting: Richard G Jones
Sound: Matt McKenzie
Running time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0207 468 0100
Booking to 8th May 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th April 2010 performance at the Soho Theatre, Dean Street, London W1D 3NE (Tube: Tottenham Court Road)

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