Tuesday 13 March
The physical theatre company’s newest work brings questions of free speech, multiculturalism and Islam to the stage. Sarfraz Manzoor meets its creator, Lloyd Newson
It is Saturday evening and Jeremy Paxman is dancing on the stage of the National Theatre with Islamic radical Anjem Choudary and progressive Muslim Maajid Nawaz. This is not, sadly, evidence of a bold new development in current affairs journalism. It is instead a scene from Can We Talk About This?, a verbatim dance work from the physical theatre company DV8, which addresses questions of free speech, multiculturalism and Islam.
The show begins in 1985 and ends in the present day by way of a “greatest hits” of Islam’s low-points. The Satanic Verses affair, the murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh, the publication of the Danish cartoons, “honour”-based killings, forced marriages and sharia law are among the events and subjects tackled in a series of episodes where dancers quote from specially commissioned interviews and existing archive while dancing, often in a jerky, angular manner. During the course of the 80-minute show the cast of 10 dancers portray 25 characters, including the late Christopher Hitchens, Shirley Williams, ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali who wrote Infidel, historian Timothy Garton Ash and author Martin Amis. It is Amis’s words that begin the show when a lone dancer stands in the centre of the stage and asks the audience: “Do you feel morally superior to the Taliban?”
Lloyd Newson is the shaven-headed, Australian-born creator of Can We Talk About This?. When we met, in the cafe of the National Theatre, he told me that the work had its origins in a previous piece he had created called To Be Straight with You in which he had explored the attitudes of Muslims, Jews and Christians to homosexuality. “We interviewed about 40 gay Muslims [for that piece] and not one of them wanted their identities to be told,” said Newson. “This was around 2008, and then in 2009 a survey came out by the Centre for Muslim Studies where they asked 500 Muslims whether they thought homosexuality was morally acceptable or not. A hundred percent said it was unacceptable.”
When Newson raised this in conversation with friends he was struck by what he refers to as a “liberal blind spot” in respect to Islam. At dinner parties, he says, people “would get very uncomfortable. They would either try to divert from the subject matter or doubt my intentions – the response was to say that you shouldn’t be Islamophobic or to say it’s a complicated situation. They didn’t want to talk about it.”
This reticence was not, Newson noted, extended to Catholics or Jews, and this prompted him to begin exploring the issue. In preparation for the new show he spoke to around 40 Muslims and non-Muslims to ask what they felt they could speak about and whether they felt they were being censored.
Newson says he believes the show is nuanced and shows both sides of the argument, but watching Can We Talk About This? it seemed clear to me that the work was advancing a particular point of view. That view is that free speech is being threatened by some aspects of Islam and that state multiculturalism has a lot to answer for. The white liberals who refuse to speak out are “under the banner of being a good liberal and respecting cultural relativism … doing something more akin to a mild form of racism,” says Newson. “I believe that state multiculturalism has failed many Muslims in Britain – it has not afforded them the same rights as non-Muslim British people.”
State multiculturalism has, Newson argues, inadvertently led to a cultural relativism, which leads to a toleration of intolerant positions on women’s rights, gay rights and other liberal progressive issues. This intolerance is not confronted because, he says, there is an unwillingness to discuss it due to a fear of causing offence. “We can talk about it on a Daily Mail level,” he says, “but on a larger level people are nervous about talking about it.”
Newson has long been willing to tackle difficult subjects. During the past 25 years he has examined sexuality, violence, disability and prejudice. Is he, I wondered, worried for his safety with this new work? “Look, I am a gay man who made a piece during the Thatcher government during Clause 28 and people were concerned about us being an arts organisation dealing with something that was challenging the government. I have always felt a need to talk about issues that people felt that they didn’t want to talk about, and to challenge things that I find oppressive.”
But given the much-discussed brittle nature of some Muslims who are ever ready to take offence, does he worry? “I haven’t felt threatened,” he says. “In many ways I am partly a coward – the people who are presenting on stage are the people who have really put their lives on the line.”
I suspect that one reason for Newson to feel relatively secure is that a dance performance at the National Theatre is likely to be seen largely by those white liberal types who frustrate him so. On the night I attended it was possible to count the number of Asians in the audience on the fingers of one hand. There were, it seemed, more non-whites on stage than in the audience.
Newson is evidently passionate on the subject of Islam – when he says he has read the Qur’an and is familiar with it, I believe him – but whether this show is the best vehicle for his passion is less certain. Its linear structure and the lack of light and shade seems more akin to a polemical lecture than a piece of theatre. It was hard to know what the dancing added to the speech and, while Newson put forward a powerful case, it did not always feel balanced. He cited, for example, a poll that suggested Muslim hostility to homosexuality; but what about the later Demos poll which suggested that almost half of Muslims are proud of Britain’s stance on gay rights?
There was a lack of journalistic rigour and curiosity, which meant no examination of the role class may play in the formulation of cultural conservatism among Britain’s Muslim community. Nor did the show ask why it
is only in the last three decades that this political Islam has flourished. The overall impact of watching Can We Talk About This? was like watching a Melanie Phillips column from the Daily Mail turned into a dance performance. Without context the show felt relentless, like being cornered by a pub bore with ready access to Wikipedia. The title of the show is an enquiry, but Can We Talk About This? felt, to me, like the work of someone who had already decided on the answer long before asking the question.
Nevertheless, Newson deserves credit for his ambition and anyone watching Can We Talk About This? is likely to leave the theatre desperate to, well, talk about it – which is in itself a strong reason for seeing the show. It’s gratifying for Newson that among those who have seen the production are the very dinner party guests whose reticence to speak out inspired the show. “Many of the people who didn’t want to get into this discussion with me have seen the piece,” he told me “and they have been really moved and touched by it. Now they tell me that they finally get it.” And what’s next for you, I ask… Mormons? He laughs, and says: “I feel like I want a break from God.”
• Can We Talk About This? runs until 28 March at the National Theatre
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