Saturday 17 April 2010

Behud (Beyond Belief) – Soho Theatre

[written for CultureWars]

In 2004, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti (Dishonour) was cancelled after a small proportion of Birmingham’s Sikh community essentially rioted it into cancellation, objecting to a scene depicting sexual abuse which takes place in a Gurdwara (Sikh temple).

As I said some years ago, Behzti is “one of the worst published plays I have read in my life - from the leaden naturalistic dialogue, the negligible yet clichéd characterisation and the naïve way that [the script] specifies how the stage should be laid out (“different parts of the stage should represent different rooms” - astounding), through to the abysmal, clanging melodrama of the plot... The whole play would have sunk utterly without trace, were it not for the disgrace of its being rioted off stage.”

I’ve no doubt that becoming the centre of a media storm, being sent death threats and being cast as a pariah by one’s “community” are all deeply harrowing experiences. And now, six years on, Bhatti has written what the blurb on the back cover of the printed text describes as “a playful response to the events surrounding Behzti” in which “a playwright attempts to make sense of the past by visiting the darkest corners of her imagination” [my italics].

And this is pretty much where the problems start. Behud (Beyond Belief) tells more or less the exact same story, but is about a female Sikh playwright called Tarlochan Kaur Grewal (played without a scintilla of likeability by Chetna Pandya) and appears to be set in the present day (at least if the repeated references to a May 6th election are anything to go by), albeit in some sort of parallel universe where the offending play (here called Gund (Dirt/Filth)) goes on just before Christmas (as Behzti did) but the date of May’s election is already known. This kind of imprecision is emblematic of the lazy thinking on which the whole thing is built.

From the outset we are faced with a wall of dissembling evasiveness. None of the characters in the play are *actual people*. Fair enough. Bhatti probably doesn’t want to add several legal cases for defamation to her sea of troubles. Except that, by doing so, she abdicates all responsibility – at best what she’s chucked together could be seen as a kind of impressionist rendering of what her situation was like.

Except that she pushes her excuse-making further. Not only does she have the surrogate playwright figure on stage pretty much the whole time, but she has her indulge in the most banal meta-theatrical tricks imaginable. While other actors trot through the (unbelievably badly written) scenarios in which predictably incensed community leaders meet with caricatured artistic directors, racist coppers wax ignorant and the worse clichés of highly strung actresses rehearse their scenes, this “playwright” figure interrupts them to shout things like “No, that’s not how it happened”, or “This is too static. Stand up, sit down, stand up, sit down”. Essentially she repeatedly disowns everything that she’s written in repeated postmodern climbdowns. She pre-empts any criticism that the play is clunky, banal and trite by saying so herself. The “I’m a Writer, but I Don’t Know How to Write This Play” genre is loathsome. Every fledgling writer is allowed one stab at it and the result should never be staged. What on earth makes Bhatti think that her inability to actually write is interesting or important enough to make people watch it? Anyone who’s read Behzti already knows she can’t write. Behud only serves to confirm that a bit of suffering doesn’t have the slightest effect on ability nor does it confer nobility on the attempt.

And what a depressing exercise in massive egotism it is. Not that Bhatti is fond of herself. Oh no. The playwright (I think we’re allowed to assume that we’re meant to closely identify her the endlessly irritating “Tarlochan”) is full self-loathing. Her cipher continually self-describes as fat and untalented.

Interestingly, other characters on stage – notably the intentionally ridiculous character of the artistic director of the fictional theatre where the fictional playwright’s fictional play is staged (a hefty stab in the back for whichever idiot at Birmingham Rep ever thought Bhatti was a playwright) – argue passionately for her as a writer. Countered by a (incompetently drawn, grab-bag of assorted local government clichés) town councillor, “Joanne Stevenson” (played on auto-pilot by Lucy Briers doing a Patricia Routledge impression, apparently hoping that no one will blame her if she appears not to be there) who says all the things about the play that anyone sensible thought about Behzti, albeit mired in a set of ugly arguments that seek to equate not liking the play (Behzti or Gund, take your pick, they're more or less entirely interchangable) with being a mildly corrupt, slightly racist, careerist patsy.

Bhatti’s insights on “race” in Britain are non-existant. Indeed, Behud makes Off the Endz look like a doctoral thesis. Where that contented itself with “When the stock markets crashed and all the banks were losing money – how many black faces did you see on TV? How many of our stories did they show?” and “Life is ten times harder for us” Behud offers (from the mouth of an older male Sikh): “They [that’s All White Britons, one assumes] don’t mind us living here but they don’t want us taking part. It’s easier if you’re a woman, like Tarlochan. The Goreh [Hindi for ‘whitey’] feel sorry for you. If you’re a man, you’re the oppressor. Truth is they’re frightened of us. And jealous. They crave the power our culture gives to our sex. So they’re on a mission to emasculate us.” [my italics]

Right ho. That’s “us” told.

There’s also a white Detective Chief Inspector who gets to say: “That lot outside, they’re not like us. Don’t think the same, don’t have the same values. I’ve said it before, you can’t reason with terrorists...” and then a bit later in the same scene: “Feels like I’m living the white man’s burden all over again.”


Of course, any idiot playwright can probably find people who do say these things, can even claim that such things were said to her (albeit in a way that resembles how anyone actually talks), before ultimately falling back on the tiresome defence that this is a “playful response” from “the darkest corners of her imagination” conveniently forgetting that “playful” needn’t be a synonym for “rubbish” and that she plainly has no imagination whatsoever.

It’s unfair to lay all the blame for this at Bhatti’s door. Even leafing grumpily through the script on the bus home you get a sense that this play could have been better served by a halfway competent production. Case in point: the first – admittedly trite – stage direction is “Dawn. The stage is black. The lights go up slowly to reveal an Asian woman, TARLOCHAN, lying on the floor in front of a plain desk and chair…” Director Lisa Goldman has subtly altered this so that Tarlochan is laid *on* the table, which, laid with white cloth, is looking suspiciously like an altar, suggesting the writer sacrificed, martyred according to all the best Western Judeo-Christian traditions. Perhaps that’s meant to be ironic, but it looks misjudged (not to say imperialist) to say the least. But then this is a play in which the fictional writer at one point objects to the packets of rice that the fictional director has put on the fictional stage having Arabic writing on them as demonstrative of his cultural insensitivity rather than his boring stagecraft, so why even bother thinking about it?

But none of it matters anyway, because Bhatti keeps crawling backwards out of actually saying anything with the ridiculous cartoonish post-modernism, amplified and indulged by the production at every turn.

Circling around somewhere in the ether is a recurring hint that Bhatti knows/experienced Something Very Bad. But she won’t say what it is. This too is a recurring motif – the irritation of interviewers that she won’t pin down whether she’s making specific allegations with her play, or whether she’s just created something deliberately sensational. Gallingly Bhatti quotes Picasso in the playscript: “Art is the lie that reveals the truth”. Fair enough, except this isn’t art and neither was Behzti and for Bhatti to claim otherwise reveals a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of what art is. And what she’s peddling is simply journalism that refuses to say what the story is. Of course everyone is irritated.

Oddly, the comparison that keeps suggesting itself throughout Behud, perhaps in part because of Bhatti’s assertion that she is an artist or even a playwright, is that between Bhatti and Sarah Kane. Suffice it to say that this comparison provides any of the remaining nails needed to keep down the lid on the coffin of Bhatti’s claim to be an artist. Where Blasted – Kane’s Behzti, if we want to be crass about this – was completely misunderstood metaphor, the deeply trite Behzti, while it might also have been a metaphor, wasn’t a profound one – functioning at about the same level as, say, a death metal album cover’s metaphorical attack on Christianity by depicting a goat deflowing a buxom virgin over an altar beneath and upside-down cross, for example. Behud, by contrast, is Bhatti’s petulant stab at a 4.48 Psychosis. However, instead of creating a painful meditation which looks outward, it staples together scraps of ignorance and makes them scream “me, me, me, me, me, me, me”. Over and over again.

There are lots of quotes about “good writing” in the play that it’d possible to cheaply use as a conclusion, but this review is already roughly 1,500 words longer than Behud deserves anyway and you’ve probably got the point.

Behud is worth seeing only if you want to know what the new low for professional theatre looks like. Beyond belief indeed.


Anonymous said...

You reviewing Posh? Very interested to hear your thoughts on that.

Andrew Haydon said...

I am - should be up sometime today. Unexpectedly, I rather loved it, though. Proper explanation in review...

Anonymous said...

Mr. Haydon,

this is the best, most honest review I have read on this play. I applaud you for your honesty and acute perception.
This ‘playwright’ and her plays, Bhezti and Behud are embarrassing examples of what is wrong with British theatre today. The reviewers, in their eagerness to support the ‘martyr of free speech’ could not even give this play more than 3 stars (with the exception of one or two provincial sycophants) even though they wanted to support this writer.
I am not aware that some have tried to compare Bhatti with Sarah Kane, if this is the case then this is also a disgrace. Sarah Kane’s work (in my opinion) was honest and came from within. And as you write, ‘was misunderstood’, particularly by Michael Billington. Bhatti’s work is sensationalist and opportunistic.
This woman has dined out on that disgraceful episode for 5 years (I mean the riot, not the play… although both were disgraceful for different reasons) and people need to stop being worthy and call a spade a spade.
Again, I applaud you for your stance and integrity. I wish the other theatre critics would call it as it is instead of fudging the issues. We would have a better theatre industry if this were the case.

Anonymous said...

brilliant ! brilliant brilliant!!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Andy

So you didn’t like play (or the writer?). Do I detect middle class envy? A whiff of white British arrogance? Lazy thinking, certainly.

Anyway, having seen, and liked Behud ... and then read the self-promotion you call a theatre blog, I thought I would add a couple of corrections.

You say the play "appears to be set in the present day." Only to you and the politically uniformed, though. The rest of us know that her May 6 election reference ... was to the local elections. Not in a “parallel universe” but here on planet the UK ... many local elections happen on May 6 (fixed in advance).

Clearly, you have the same level of knowledge when it comes to Sikhism. Sacrifice and martydom are hardly the monopoly of the ‘western’ (sic) Judeo-Christian tradition as you imply.

So suggest otherwise, is, yes, misjudged (not to say imperialist) to say the least.


Andrew Haydon said...

I didn't like the play, you're right.
I've never met the writer, though, so I've got no idea how we'd get on. I've certainly nothing against her personally.

"Do I detect middle class envy?"

You might infer it, none is intended. Envy of what, incidentally?

"A whiff of white British arrogance?"

Is it "arrogant" for a someone not to like a play (irrespective of colour or nationality - neither of which seem relevant. Although thanks for not also bringing my gender or sexuality into this)? A week on, I admit that the tone of this review could perhaps have been a bit more measured, but then it's no more than a reflection of how I felt about the play the morning after I saw it.

"You say the play "appears to be set in the present day." Only to you and the politically uniformed, though. The rest of us know that her May 6 election reference ... was to the local elections. Not in a “parallel universe” but here on planet the UK ... many local elections happen on May 6 (fixed in advance)."

Mmm. But in 2005 - the next May after Behzti was staged - there weren't any Council Elections in Birmingham, which holds them on even-numbered years. There was a By-election on May the 5th. In May 2005, thoug, the 6th was a Friday... at least in this universe.

Andrew Haydon said...

Beyond that, neither Gund not its author Tarlochan Kaur Grewal actually exist. But Birmingham and Sikhism do. So I don't think this question about how far the parallel universe stretches - or when the play is meant to be set - is so unreasonable.

Re: "Sacrifice and martydom are hardly the monopoly of the ‘western’ (sic) Judeo-Christian tradition as you imply"

If you re-read what I've actually said, I start by noting that the director has "subtly altered" the writer's stage direction "so that Tarlochan is laid *on* the table, which, laid with white cloth, is looking suspiciously like an altar, suggesting the writer sacrificed, martyred according to all the best Western Judeo-Christian traditions. Perhaps that’s meant to be ironic, but it looks misjudged (not to say imperialist) to say the least."

None of that suggests that Sikhism isn't familiar with the concepts of sacrifice or martyrdom more generally (and one would have to have been living under a rock in a parallel universe for the past nine years to have missed Islamic "martyrdom").

What I'm talking about very specifically is the iconography of the altar and the sacrifice. Judaism had it. Indeed, the image of the sacrificed lamb is one that Christ traded heavily on. As such it finds itself symbolised in the altars of Christian churches to this day (hence "Judeo-Christian").

Sikhism does not have an analogy to this, to the best of my knowledge. It certainly doesn't symbolise such an image in the Darbar of a Gurdwara. In much the same way that Mosques don't have an Altar and the Jews haven't had an altar since the descruction of Beit HaMikdash in Yerushaláyim.

Of course I see the iconography through my white, Western eyes, but what I'm pointing out here is that as such my eyes are of roughly the same provenance as the director's, I'm foregrounding the subjectivity of my reading of this image, but at the same time wondering out loud whether perhaps it's a misstep.

As I say, I've never met Bhatti, so I can't say with any certainty, for example, whether she actually does habitually dress in an orange hoodie and light and dark grey striped pyjama trousers - looking for all the world like she wants to suggest Guantanamo from the waist up and Auschwitz from the waist down.

But, yes, of course that's a contentious bit of "reading the stage". On the other hand, Lisa Goldman's been to Europe enough to know that theatre is a "readable" visual medium - that images are not value-free. That such connotations *are* both available and suggestive.

I'm glad you liked the play, though. And thanks for reading and commenting.