London’s Royal Court theatre in row over shelving of Tibet play
The Royal Court theatre has been accused of censorship by an award-winning Indian playwright, who claims that its production of a major new play about contemporary Tibet was put on ice because of fears of a negative Chinese reaction.
The London theatre, known for its groundbreaking international productions, is facing questions after Abhishek Majumdar revealed a copy of the poster for the play Pah-la, bearing the imprints of the Arts Council and the Royal Court along with text suggesting that it was due to run for a month last autumn.
Majumdar claimed the play was withdrawn because of fears over the possible impact on an arts programme in Beijing, where Chinese writers are working with the publicly funded theatre and British Council.
His play deals with life in contemporary Tibet and draws on personal stories of Tibetans he worked with in India, which is home to a substantial community of exiles, including the Dalai Lama.
The play was in development for three years and rehearsals had been fixed, according to Majumdar, who claimed that the British Council had “pressurised” the theatre to withdraw it because of sensitivities relating to the writing programme. A team from the Royal Court has been working with 16 writers in Beijing on their plays, according to its website.
Majumdar said that the Dalai Lama had told him to prepare for resistance to the play, adding: “Now I know what that means.” Tibet has long been governed as an autonomous region of China – which sent in troops in 1950 to enforce a territorial claim and has staged a large-scale relocation of Han Chinese civilians – but the allegiances of many in the largely Buddhist territory lie with the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
The Royal Court has earned a reputation for staging works that are often politically and socially charged. It describes itself on its website as a theatre that “has held firm to its vision of being a writers’ theatre”.
The Royal Court said it had had to postpone and then withdraw Pah-la for financial reasons last year, after it had been in development for three years, and that it was now committed to producing the play in spring 2019 “in the light of recent events”.
It added: “The Royal Court always seeks to protect and not to silence any voice. In an international context, this can sometimes be more complex across communities. The Royal Court is committed to protecting free speech, sometimes within difficult situations.”
The theatre added that it was committed to working with Chinese writers and has been in conversation with the free expression group PEN “around these complexities” .
Robert Sharp, a spokesman for English PEN, said the organisation had been in discussions with the Royal Court over the issue and was pleased that the play would go ahead eventually.
He added: “It is a pity that there was a delay in confirming with the playwright that Pah-la will be staged at the Royal Court, but I think what this controversy reveals is how China sows anxiety among artists and arts organisations. We all need to be vigilant to resist this chill on artistic freedom.”
A British Council spokesperson said: “The British Council supports UK arts organisations to engage internationally, which includes running scriptwriting workshops with the Royal Court theatre. We have corresponded with the theatre about our workshops together. The Royal Court theatre’s programming team is solely and independently responsible for their decisions about the plays they commission. We are pleased this play can be staged in 2019: the playwright took part in previous writing workshops we supported in India.”
The British Council was accused in 2012 of excluding Chinese dissident and independent voices from that year’s London Book Fair when it was focused on the Chinese market.