“This is shit! Islamaphobic shit!” shouts the man who has just burst into the Lyttleton auditorium. He throws something – it could be faeces – at the stage. The interruption sends a jolt through the room. Heads turn. Concentration snaps. The show pauses.
It must have been staged. The stagehand that appears with a dustpan and brush is slightly too quick off the mark. The protest itself chimes too neatly with the material. And yet, I can’t be 100% sure. That doubt proves the bravery and potency of DV8’s danced documentary on multiculturalism.
Essentially, it dares to ask whether tolerance extends to intolerance. More specifically, whether liberal Western society should grant freedom of expression to those individuals – particularly individual Muslims – that call for its destruction.
It’s a skilfully weaved case, constructed mostly from verbatim testimonial and media transcripts, that argues post-Rushdie, and a long list of similar attacks on those to have criticised Islam, society has bowed to threat. That we have become unwilling to assert the moral superiority of certain values over others fearful of offence or, worse, repercussions.
Turning focus on forced marriage and Sharia law, DV8 maintain that multiculturalism stops short of cultural relativism. It sounds a bit ‘Britain for British,’ but it’s absolutely not. The one law for all they advocate can – indeed, must – encompass a cross-cultural blend.
Lloyd Newson’s production plunges headlong into this paradox with the wilful determination of someone forcing their hand into a food disposal unit. It was always going to be messy. He’s careful to distinguish between Islam and “some Muslims,” but the absence of any other species of intolerance leaves the piece disconcertingly prone to manipulation and misunderstanding; a fact not helped by information overload. (You leave with a list of further reading and a headful of questions.) It’s a seriously steely artistic choice. Some will call it foolhardy, but theatre exists for such acts of public courage.
Verbatim texts hover above gorgeous choreography, almost dislocated from each other, but always balanced and integral. The effect is to entrance your eyes, the better to attune your ears.
Hannes Langolf & Ira Mandela Siobhan in Can We Talk About This?
Performers start by hopping in sync, from foot to foot, like politically correct mannequins. As arguments develop, movements grow jagged, complex and arrhythmic. There are motifs of treading carefully, horses backtracking and, with regards media debates, boxing glove-puppets trading harmless blows. The best sequence shows Anne Cryer MP sensibly and carefully arguing against forced marriage while floating, guru-like, with a cup of tea in hand.
Kudos to the National for its continued efforts to make equal partners of theatre and verbatim texts, but the real credit belongs to DV8 for theatre that demands – requires – a second viewing. Hold that against it if you will, but I’d rather theatre that’s too full, too complex and too important for a single sitting any day.
Theatre this potent, this outspoken and this courageous is rare. When it appears, it becomes absolutely necessary viewing.
- Matt Trueman