‘This’ being free speech, multiculturalism, Islam, Islamism, the issues at the heart of DV8’s extraordinary new show.
Lloyd Newson’s company has, for more than quarter of a century, blurred the lines between dance and theatre as a way of, in the company’s own words, ‘reinvesting dance with meaning, particularly where this has been lost through formalised techniques’. It has always tackled controversial and difficult subjects, but the latest is likely to be the most challenging yet.
The show opens, as most of those in the audience must have known, with a cast member demanding of the spectators ‘Do you feel morally superior to the Taliban?’. It’s a nod to Martin Amis who asked that same question to a hostile audience in a notorious debate at London’s ICA, back in 2007. It is hardly the most sophisticated of questions. Yet its very unsophistication reveals so starkly the spectre haunting the liberal moral swamp.
It is that sense of moral reticence – even of guilt – at the thought of passing judgment upon other cultures, revealed by the reluctance to think that one could be morally superior to the Taliban, that lies at the heart of Can We Talk about This?. The show begins with the infamous Ray Honeyford row in Bradford in 1985, and moves through the Rushdie affair, the murder in 2004 of Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh, the Danish cartoons controversy the following year, and the banning in 2009 of Dutch MP Geert Wilders from this country because of his anti-Islamic film Fitna, all interwoven with discussions of forced marriage, honour killings, jihadism. The emotion that courses through every scene is a pulsating anger at the way that liberal cowardice has interwoven with multicultural naivety to allow Islamist extremist to silence critics and to betray both principles and people.
Newson’s argument that there is a conspiracy of silence about Islamist wrongs is undermined by the fact that most of the cases he documents are already familiar to us from the media. “To speak out,” someone says, “is called racist.” No, it’s not: it’s called journalism, as evidenced by the quotes in the show from Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens, and the numerous columnists cited in the programme. And, much as I applaud a piece of physical theatre that deals with serious issues, the debate about multiculturalism is over-simplified. What is never explored is the idea that integration in some areas of life can be combined with preservation of one’s cultural and religious identity. Perhaps such criticism is unfair. After all, Can We Talk About This? is physical theatre not a roundtable discussion. The ambition of the show, and its willingness to stomp all over the debate, is its great strength.
As always with DV8, the physical side of the show is impressive: one female performer illustrates the determination to escape a forced marriage purely through sinuous hand and hip movements.
Can We Talk About This? is, like all DV8 works, both thought provoking and gut-wrenching, food for mind and heart. It is the kind of bold, polemical spectacle that the theatre so badly needs, a world away from the insipid offerings that all too often litter the contemporary stage.