By Dominic Cavendish
28 February 2012
We talk to Lloyd Newson, the man behind a provocative new production about Islamic extremism, at the National Theatre
‘I can’t anticipate how people are going to respond and what they’re going to do,” Lloyd Newson says of the imminent National Theatre run of Can We Talk About This? – one of the most searching examinations of Islamic extremism to have hit any stage in the UK, and a production with the potential to make the blasphemy controversy that grew around Jerry Springer: The Opera, which opened Nicholas Hytner’s regime there, look like a mere hiccup of disapproval.
One shouldn’t, of course, tempt fate. Since the verbatim dance piece – presented by the choreographer’s acclaimed company DV8 – opened at the Sydney Opera House last August, it has earned critical superlatives rather than fiery denunciations. Yet as Newson, a charismatic Australian who moved here in 1980, reflects on the work’s rationale at his East End base not far from Brick Lane – the heart of Tower Hamlets’ Muslim community – I wonder what response it might elicit from the devout-looking men he passes in the street.
Employing fiendishly intricate, beautifully stylised movement to counterpoint the cut and thrust of views drawn from wide-ranging interviews, Can We Talk About This? runs from the Eighties, and the Rushdie Affair, to the present, via the murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh and the Danish “Muhammad cartoons” furore, to show how Western values of free expression and equality have run up against militant Islamism, and even come under attack from it, with multiculturalism often acting as an aiding and abetting force.
It’s provocative even by DV8’s own risk-taking standards. In its 25 years, Newson has braved tough, taboo topics, and at times reaped media outrage for his uncompromising looks at sexuality, violence and the case of mass-murderer Dennis Nielson (Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men), at male “cottaging” (MSM) and at disability and prejudice (The Cost of Living). While this project was well received in Paris, Newson was told it would be impossible to mount it in Marseille, owing to the size of the city’s Muslim population. Turkey too is out of bounds: the lives of his 11 multi-ethnic, multi-faith dancers would be in danger, a contact there told him. And there’s no question of it touring to any other Muslim country.
It has already been at Warwick Arts Centre – and was briefly in Leeds, too – but a major test will be with London audiences. Most of those Newson represents on stage, following his eight-month research period, bring a UK-domestic slant to the issue. We see leftist journalist Medhi Hasan shown engaging in a sparring dance with the historian Timothy Garton Ash at an Orwell Prize debate. And Maajid Nawaz, head of the progressive Quilliam Foundation, bops about, going head-to-head with Anjem Choudary of the now banned Islam4UK on Newsnight – refereed by a typically bemused Jeremy Paxman. Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, Shirley Williams and Salman Rushdie also crop up, the dancers adopting a variety of arresting positions as physical correlatives to their sometimes blunt, sometimes contorted utterances, as does the late Ray Honeyford, whose remarks about the failures of integration in education notoriously cost him his job as a Bradford head teacher in 1986.
It was the silence that descended when he tried to broach the subject of Islamic attitudes to homosexuality with his own left-liberal friends that got Newson, 54, thinking about self-censorship and the moral relativism of multiculturalism. “A lot of my liberal friends are very happy to criticise Catholicism, Christianity and Judaism but when it comes to Islam, it feels as though all the same principles are disregarded,” he says. When he aired the result of an international Gallup poll that suggested zero per cent of British Muslims thought homosexuality was acceptable, “Many friends of mine said: ‘You have to be careful about being Islamophobic.’ I’d say, ‘Hold on – I’m quoting a statistic. Why is the first thing you gasp at not that statistic but that I may be Islamophobic for raising it?’
“A lot of Muslims might be irritated by me as a white atheist making a piece about this sensitive subject,” he continues, “but this is a reputable company and we’ve always dealt with difficult issues. We have a range of voices here – we give space to Islamists too. We are thorough and detailed – whether people like the work or not is another matter. I’ve often spoken about things that dance doesn’t address. It happens this time to be about Islam, multiculturalism and freedom of speech. Are we saying we can’t talk about these things? I feel this is a fundamental question at the moment.”
He admits to having lost several friends through making the work. “It has been difficult.” Does he feel brave? No, he says. For him, this is just the latest step in his company’s mission to use the techniques of dance in a relevant way: “When I was doing ballet class I remember looking out of the window and thinking, ‘How can I get that world or what I read about in the papers into the studio?’ That was often not the concern of other choreographers. What does an arabesque mean? Nothing! Most of the time it’s as simple as showing off – that’s not to say that some dance pieces don’t create a huge visceral response, but often for me they can be very generalised and not very articulate.”
Even when we meet, he’s still researching the topic, preparing for a platform discussion at the National. What the future holds for him, he can’t say – his interest in speech, anathema to dance purists, means he may reach a point, he says, “Where I will go, ‘No more movement, it’s time to direct plays’.” For the moment, he’s just looking forward to the day when he can wake in the morning once again and think, “What can I read now that has nothing to do with Islam?”
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