Theatre Forum Ireland: Asking for Trouble (1/3)

16th June 2006



The public debate on Censorship and Artistic Freedom, with Neal Foster, Stewart Lee, Peter Sellars and Janet Steel. Conall Morrison chairs.

‘Health and safety’ has now become a bureaucrat’s dream and a creative person’s nightmare.


THEATRE FORUM IRELAND 2006: ASKING FOR TROUBLE (1/3) The public debate on Censorship and Artistic Freedom, with Neal Foster, Stewart Lee, Peter Sellars and Janet Steel. Conall Morrison chairs.

Recorded: 16 June 2006

Transcribed by the V&A © This transcript is copyright of the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you wish to refer to this in publication its reference is THEATRE FORUM IRELAND 2006: ASKING FOR TROUBLE (1/3) and you must quote the url in your address bar.

Conall Morrison: So we’ll kick off please, with – oh, before I should actually name, I should have the graciousness to name the panel. It’s Stewart Lee, Peter Sellers, Neal Foster and Janet Steel. We’ll kick off with Janet please. Janet, thank you.

Janet Steel: This is great, I feel like I’m on Question Time. It’s fantastic, the way you introduced the panel there. Brilliant.

I’ve been asked to speak for five minutes about my experience on Behzti so that’s what I’ll do. It was December 2004 – I’m sure a lot of you are aware of what happened, but I was asked by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti and the Birmingham Rep to direct Behzti. I had been working with Gurpeet before on a devising piece with the company I’m director of, which is Kali Theatre Company, and we were exploring a fantastical world which was set in AD528 which spanned from India to Constantinople. It was all about being wild and free and crazy. And then Gurpreet handed me this script and she said, “Will you read this first draft?” And I read it, and I knew Gurpeet’s work because I have read it before. And I was absolutely astonished by the bravery of the piece. Gurpeet has a great talent for writing and she has a great talent for writing truth. She has a great talent for writing about people’s inadequacies and how people really treat other people. It’s a very honest piece of writing. I don’t know how many people here have read it, I don’t how if anybody saw it, I doubt it, but if anybody’s read it then hopefully that comes through the writing. So I said to her, “This is a very daring piece, Gurpreet, are you sure it has to be set in a Gurdwara,” which is where the piece is set, a Gurdwara is a Sikh temple. We sat down and we discussed it and it was very much that the temple is another character in the play. And as the play is about hypocrisy, it was very important that the piece was set where it was set. Anyway, we went ahead, started casting – it was very interesting, the casting process, because most of the men we offered the work to turned it down because of the nature of the piece. There weren’t many actors who were brave enough to play those male characters in the play. But eventually Madhav Sharma who is a very experienced actor agreed to play the main role of Mr Sandhu, who is the rapist in the piece – the homosexual and the rapist – which is what one of the themes were about.

I’m jumping about here but I’m trying to go chronologically. All the women we auditioned jumped at it – couldn’t wait to get their hands on this kind of work, which was very fascinating and interesting. So we started rehearsals, everything was going smoothly apart from the fact we only had three weeks which wasn’t very long to do a very, very long play. And then we were told on day two of rehearsal that we had to do a reading of the piece to elders in the Sikh community that Friday evening. So that was a bit weird because it was about them working towards doing this reading rather than actually working towards just doing the play. And we held this reading on the Friday evening and the elders turned out to be two youngsters because the elders couldn’t make it so they sent their sons along. And it wasn’t a very important do really, there were two people there, as I say, and we read the piece, and one of the gentlemen said that he thought it was a great play, it was a very important play, but he didn’t feel it should be set in a Gurdwara. And the other guy, who was a lawyer, kept very quiet and didn’t really say very much.

And then we carried on with rehearsals. It was a really exciting rehearsal process because the set was very much an open space which meant it could be transformed into many things. We didn’t want to represent Sikh religion in any form of symbolism on stage. We didn’t have the Sikh holy book on the stage. We kept everything very open and it was very theatrically directed, I guess. I felt very free when I did that piece, it was wonderful. And then we were on our second day of the tech rehearsal and we were told that some members of the local Sikh community had gone to the council and wanted to get the play stopped on the grounds that it was inciting racial hatred, which was a great shock to us, because the whole piece was the opposite, to us. It was about identifying how communities cover up stories and how human beings can be so vicious to other human beings and about how everything is on a facial level and nothing, you know – when you’re set with an environment, you know, like this building, how things, how you cover things up. How you secretly go under things and around things rather than treating people as though people deserve to be treated.

So we were very shocked by this and we thought, “OK, so what do we do?” What we had to do was a dress rehearsal to the powers that be, which were the local councillors, Arts Council, local members of the Sikh community. And I think that that was the most difficult thing out of everything that happened actually, because the people here who work in theatre, and I think you all do, it’s about the process of making a play, and that first dress rehearsal is a very special moment. It’s where things are finally brought together and you see the whole collaborative process come together for the first time. And everybody is laid bare really, you just show it and it’s a very, you know – for the actors as well it’s a very difficult time, a very nervous time, and to be confronted with an audience – and what an audience – was very, very difficult. Anyway. They did laugh, actually. It’s a very funny play as well. We did the piece, and we sort of sat there and I hugged the shoulders of the designer sat in front of me. And what happened was three members of the Sikh male community went up to Gurpreet and almost, almost physically attacked her. I stepped in, and Jonathan Church stepped in, we sort of, had to sort of stand in the middle, because the hatred from these people towards Gurpreet was so intense you could see it. They were speaking to her in Punjabi so I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but they were threatening, pointing fingers, and the threatening continued out into the foyer. Stuart took everybody out into the foyer and the threatening continued.

And all of a sudden, from doing a piece of work that meant so much to all of us, and the actors had given so much, so much about honesty and truth, all of a sudden we were thrust into another world. Well, the world that the play explores, actually. And that was very difficult. And then from then on, when the play opened, we had a couple of people standing outside handing out pieces of paper. We kind of made a concession to the Sikh community because we could tell that they were very upset, that we would read out a statement before each performance, which was the weirdest thing in the world. So the Front of House manager would get up, everybody would be sitting there like you’re sitting there now. The Front of House manager would get up and read this statement which would say, “This play is not based on fact”, I can’t remember the exact words, “The Sikh community are very angry about this piece, this doesn’t represent us”, and so on… and it was like the weirdest thing. So if people come to the theatre waiting to enjoy a play, and the opening scene, the prologue, is a very hard-hitting but very funny piece, you get this statement. There’s this silence for a long time. It’s like “What are we going to see?” It was the bizarrest, weirdest, kill – how to kill the opening of a play.

Because the opening of the play is Balbir, the mother, naked in a shower. We had this huge shower curtain, so she’s naked inside and you see like this outline. And the opening lines of the play are I think, something like “More soap, shitter.” She talking to her daughter, asking for more soap, and it’s a very funny line, not how I delivered it there but how Shelley King delivered it was very funny, I assure you. And… it was weird, I mean… anyway. So as the piece went on, the demonstrations were not, you know, it was all very peaceful; we chatted to the guys outside, it was all very amicable. I went away on the Thursday, came back on the Saturday to see the show, and I couldn’t even get into Birmingham City. There were helicopters, there were police sirens, and I made a joke to my partner, I said, “Oh, they’ve come to get me,” you know. They hadn’t come to get me, but they’d come to get the play. What had happened was, throughout the day, and because it was a Saturday as well, people weren’t at work, the groups had swelled. And what had happened was we had been warned emails were going out, phone calls had been made, people were being bussed in on coaches from around the country to protest about something they knew absolutely nothing about because nobody came to see the play.

There were a handful of local Sikhs who came to see the play and we engaged with them in a very interesting discussion. The women felt, you know, would come and thank us for putting this piece on because they said, “These things have to be talked about in our community.” And what actually happened was, you know, there were people drumming, it was quite a sort-of carnival atmosphere I guess. And then I think, I think, I don’t know because I wasn’t there but I think a few young guys took it upon themselves to take some action. And they smashed in the front of the Birmingham Rep, which is glass-fronted, and that was scary in itself, but the worst thing they did, which was total violation as far as I’m concerned, they smashed in the stage door and went in where the actors were. The actors had to lock themselves in their dressing rooms out of fear. And they went into the theatre itself and they, you know, pulled stuff and, you know, started to destroy the set, basically. And that was – that made me so angry, I was so fucking angry about that. How dare they? I think you’ve got a right to protest, everybody has. But that is total violation. I’m not a religious person, you know, I’m not, so for me the theatre is my religion. That is where I practice what I like to preach. And the actors were terrified. You can imagine, because they had been… And by that time Gurpreet was out of the picture, she’d already had her death threats. So she hadn’t been to the theatre all week, she’d been to – she was in hiding, basically.

So it was total bullying, you know, it was the bully boys were out to frighten us, basically, and they did. They did scare us. And the awful thing is all this of course was that it was totally taken out of the hands of the artists who created the piece. Because we felt very proud, we felt very proud of this piece. We felt most proud because it was the majority of the people involved in making this piece happen was a group of Asian women who had, kind of, wanted to tell this story and had told this story. And we felt very proud of that because as Asian theatre practitioners it’s been a really long struggle for us to actually even get out work put on and for people to recognise us as artists and not just, you know, people who works in the corner shop. And so for us it was the first time that you actually saw strong Asian women on stage being wonderful characters, multi-dimensional. And we were exploring really big themes, and small themes, and love and hate and religion. And somebody had stopped us. Well, a few people had stopped us. They had shut us up, which was what they wanted to do. And that’s what was so painful, because we are constantly being made to shut up. And that was the worst thing of it, actually. And…

CM: Wind up, Janet, just to wind you up.

JS: Well, how it wound up was that it got pulled. You know, the theatre couldn’t… Also in the house at the time, in the main house, was The Witches, which is a children’s piece and it was 800-seater. It was sold out. So they had to pull Behzti which was a 112-seater in the studio for the safety of all of the other people in the theatre. Not just the audience, but the Front of House people, people in the Box Office, you know. Everybody was under attack. And the guy on the stage door, you know, that was there when that – when it got knocked in, I mean – he was off work for days, I mean he was a wreck. You can understand. It was awful; it was awful. And nobody was charged at all with any offence. A few people were arrested and everybody was let off. And I’m sure that you’ll be able to talk more about the local politics of the piece, but I decided to talk about the art, and hopefully we’ll get on to the politics because I think that is important. What happened was it got taken off, basically, and Gurpreet was in hiding for a long time. She’s not anymore, glad to say. And for the artists that were actually involved in it, I think we all were in a bit of a cloud. I mean, I certainly was in a – I didn’t realise until I came out of it. I was in a daze for about a year, I think. In some kind of, hazy kind of “Did that really happen?” kind of thing. We all sort of said we wouldn’t talk to the press and none of us went to the press. It was – we were all sort of silent so it was all very bizarre hearing everybody else talk about something that, that they were only witnesses of and they didn’t actually, weren’t actually involved in the process of. So, yes, that’s the upshot, really. We got silenced. We lost.

CM: Horrible thing with this is that each one of these practitioners’ stories could easily fill a whole day. We’ll move on. Neal, please.

JS: Thank you.

NF: This is odd. I’ve never met Janet. The only person I’ve had any contact with through this whole time was Jonathan Church who ran the Rep. I run the Birmingham Stage company, based in Birmingham, which is one of the other major producing companies in the city. And I was driving to London on the day of the Monday after the Saturday when the Rep were making their decision about what they were going to do. And I had seen on the lunchtime news that Stuart Rogers, the Chief Exec, was having a discussion and it was purported on the news there was going to be a meeting and they were going to announce what they were going to do. And I just assumed the announcement was going to be “We’ll carry on.” And it was on the Radio 4 PM programme I was listening to as I drove into London, Stuart Rogers was on it saying, “We’re cancelling it.” And the phrase he used, which is what particularly got me, actually, was he used the phrase “because of Health and Safety”. And, you know, I agree with Health and Safety in principle but I think it’s become a bureaucrat’s dream and a creative person’s nightmare, personally. And it was particularly that phrase that I went “Health and Safety? For Health and fucking Safety, you’re going to cancel this play?” So I phoned from my car on my mobile, the PM programme, and said, “I think this is a terrible decision and I think the Rep have made a terrible mistake in cancelling this play in the face of violence, because effectively, it’s giving in to violent people. It’s very straightforward.” And between talking to them and then parking my car I think, “There’s got to be something I can do about this, I can’t just phone a radio programme and say, ‘It’s a terrible thing’”, so I thought, “Well, I’ve got a theatre in Birmingham. If the writer wants me to, I’ll put it on.”

So I then, by that time I’d got in to the office and I then phoned Radio PM and I said, “Look, if you want,” to say, “I’ll put the play on. If the Rep won’t do it, I’m happy to do it.” And – so that’s what went out on the airwaves at half past five, and within an hour I’d received a phone call from a Sikh gentleman saying that if I did put the play on I’d be killed. Which was all a bit… and then, funnily enough, I was taking out my team for a Christmas dinner at The Ivy restaurant that night, so I put my mobile number on the answering machine and went out to The Ivy and unfortunately the phone did not stop ringing. Because, in a sense, what I’d articulated was what the media in Britain felt. So suddenly everyone wanted to put me on the TV or the radio because I was articulating the media’s view of what had happened. I got another phone call from another Sikh gentlemen. And by the time I got home, because I’d been on Newsnight and various programmes, I thought by twelve o’clock I should call the police and tell them I’ve had these calls. I got home at about two or three o clock in the morning and was sitting next to two policemen who were telling me how they were going to protect me against these death threats. And that night when they left I sat down seriously to think and I realised I was kind of making a choice, really. I had spoken up about a play I hadn’t read or seen, and I was finding myself putting my life, essentially, on the line for this play.

The one thing that was important – one of my administrative assistants, her mother had seen the play the previous week and had mentioned it and said it was one of the best things she’d seen at the Rep for ten years. So I knew it wasn’t a piece of shit, and I wouldn’t I think, have supported it if it had, but I know this woman is quite a critical woman, because she never likes anything we do. So if she liked it I thought, you know, it’s got to be worth – this is a decent piece of material and I was appalled. And I think it’s personal. I’ve always been anti-bullying, I’ve always hated cruelty. I tried to bully one boy when I was seventeen and I put his arm behind his back and he went “Ah” and I went, “Oh my god!” So clearly my reaction to this was very visceral and just simply based on the fact that there were bullies in Birmingham bullying someone who was putting on a play and I couldn’t accept that. And I realise, as I say that, I was putting myself in jeopardy. And I discovered something about myself and I had no idea, because I’m certainly not brave in any normal context. I wouldn’t join the Army and I’m not going to be in the police force or anything. But I did suddenly discover that the ability to say what you want, to think what you want and to express yourself I realised was more important to me than my own life. Because I decided that whatever happened, I would go ahead with trying to support the play and the playwright if she wanted it to go further.

CM: Just to move you on, what did happen?

NF: The next day, I suddenly had an idea that maybe the best way, practically; I try and be a practical person. I thought the best way to deal with it was to try and persuade as many theatres as possible in England to do a reading of the play. Because if you can get thirty theatres to stage a reading, protestors such as had gone to Birmingham couldn’t possible protest at every single theatre. And I thought by doing that, one would take the sting out of it, you’d have got all these readings on, the play would have been read, so anybody subsequently staging the play – it’s kind of like, old news now. The play’s been done. Someone staging it, I thought it would be a way of tackling it. Unfortunately what happened that night – was a Tuesday night, I was going to announce this idea on the Today programme on the Wednesday morning – Jonathan Church phoned me (he’s the artistic director of the Birmingham Rep).

I know Jonathan, he’s directed a show for me, we’ve known each other for years. And he said to me, “Neal, Gurpreet has phoned me and asked me to persuade you not to go ahead with this proposal,” because I’d already talked to his about it, “because of increased threats to her life, and she’s asked us to make a personal plea to you.” I said, “OK.” I mean, you can’t do anything that can further put her at risk because of action that I personally am taking. So I said, “Fine, I’ll drop it.” I phoned up the reporters who were going to report the story the next day and said, “It’s all off, because of these increased threats,” and that’s what was reported the next morning.

A week later I got a phone call from Gurpreet’s agent saying, “Why do you keep telling everyone that Gurpreet stopped you from doing this proposal?” I said, “Because Jonathan Church phoned me and told me.” She said, “She never spoke to Jonathan.” And I phoned Jonathan and said, “What was all that about?” He said, “Oh, I think there must have been some confusion. She spoke to Ben Payne, the literary manager.” I said, “Well, I’ve been told she didn’t speak to anyone, Jonathan.” He said, “I’ll just check”, and he came back to me and said, “No, no, she didn’t speak to anyone, sorry about that. It was a confusion.” Well, that’s the end of my relationship with Jonathan Church, although he doesn’t know that at this moment.

I feel that, very strongly, that what happened in Birmingham was an absolute disgrace. I believe that what happened on Saturday should have been anticipated, but wasn’t, but that subsequent performances should have been protected by police who are paid to, you know… They looked after the government when the miners – they were pretty good in that. They are paid, they are all volunteers, and they should have surrounded that theatre if necessary and made sure that law-abiding citizens and actors and professionals and box office people can go to that theatre and put on a play. Whatever the circumstances that lead to it, at that point that play and everyone doing it should have been supported. The Council, I’m sure, Birmingham City Council, were not helpful, and I’m sure were trying to tell the Birmingham Rep to take the play off because no council wants trouble. And if necessary, and you have a children’s show next door, you cancel the children’s show and put it on at another time, or you put on Behtzi in the morning, or you find some way of doing it. Because in my view, the issue that was at stake, which was freedom – I mean, it’s so simple at the right of someone, if they’re not breaking the law, to put on a play was being put at jeopardy by violent people, whoever they were. It should not have been cancelled, and something should have changed. And I kind of felt at the time, and I didn’t know what was going to happen with Jerry Springer, but I knew that I felt the country changed that night, that day that that decision was made, and I don’t think the United Kingdom has recovered from that decision. It was a black day I think, for theatre, for Birmingham, and for Britain. And the play hasn’t been put on again, has it, yet, has it?

JS: No. It’s had a reading in Belgium, and it’s going to be put on in Belgium at the end of the year.

NF: I think the play should be put on, but we’ve got to respect whatever Gurpreet wants to do. I phoned the agent afterwards and said, you know, “My offer still stands”, and it does still stand, I would put the play on. She said she wants to let it quieten down, for understandable reasons. So that was what happened. I’ve never been involved in anything like it before, I’ve never been involved in anything like it since. I think, unfortunately, what’s happened to Jerry Springer, we have entered into a new place in this country and I don’t quite know how we shift it back, because we let the violent people win. We lost. And it’s left us in a very bad state.

CM: Thank you very much, Neal.