Re:View – ‘Can We Talk About This?’

Great Britain, Observatory, The Arts

DV8, the risk-taking dance group that grew into a political theatre movement, are 25 years old now, and are currently appearing in a sell-out show at the National. In the last few years they’ve moved from sexual politics into a darker world arena. Their latest piece, like the last, is entirely constructed from verbatim quotes, and this time the subject – freedom of speech – is incendiary.

It starts with a member of the cast asking the audience; ‘Hands up all of you who feel morally superior to the Taliban?’ After the hand-count, the company defies the expectation about where this exploration will go – you rather think you’re in for a long harangue on the subject of tolerance – by illustrating that Islamic extremism is undermining free speech in non-Islamic countries.

It’s not a stance you’d expect from DV8, which is why it becomes so powerful an argument. Ranging from the riots in the wake of Salman Rushdie and the Danish cartoons through lists of those recently killed in the name of the Qur’an, it shows how the British commitment to multiculturalism – that is, the right to lead culturally separate lives in the UK – has led to a disastrous tangle of paradoxes. If, for example, you allow others to follow the letter of their religion, you have to deal with the fallout of honor-killings, tortures and the execution of anyone considered an apostate.

It’s literally a courageous piece. The Evening Standard noted; ‘Even the darkest sections are beautiful. Christina May elegantly traces lines on her body while speaking the words of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote the film Submission, over which director Theo Van Gogh was murdered in Holland in 2004. It is a mystifying ritual until she explains that the pair’s “blasphemy” was to write, on the skin of women made up to look bruised and battered, text from the Qu’ran authorising husbands to beat their wives.’

By suggesting that Britain’s multicultural policies have inadvertently licensed separatism and that people are frightened of criticising militant Islam, DV8 have finally upset the hard Left from which they originally grew. In one section there’s a fight on Newsnight as Jeremy Paxman attempts to remain in control and a pro-Islam lobby avoids all direct questions. Shirley Williams turns up in typically unhelpful, prevaricating mode, and many other real-life figures are represented by the dancers. Arguments include many counter-balanced viewpoints, but because the piece consists of verbatim quotes it can only touch upon a vast topic in its 80 minute running time. Much of the physical work is astonishing, including a section in which one of the dancers takes tea on the body of another dancer, who forms the table and chairs that support her.

By the end, the stage is covered in names and statistics. One point that comes up late in the performance is that extreme religious beliefs are the product of under-education. Militant Islamic states register low on the global achievement scale precisely because education and healthcare are dismantled and women are rendered invisible or killed.

The piece is set to tour and needs to get away from the predisposed audiences of the National (although there were lots of young people in attendance), who are very open to discussions of rights and free speech, and move out into the suburbs. But perhaps that would simply be too dangerous, and would make the point of the show all too clear.

4 comments on “Re:View – ‘Can We Talk About This?’”

  1. J F Norris says:

    I so much enjoy reading about the theater company. I am extremely envious of your opportunity to attend these events and that the plays are so pertinent and challenging to the audience in addition to the unusual performance qualities and odd settings they choose. There used to be a guerrilla theater company in Chicago that advertised by word of mouth and ambiguous ads in a free newspaper. Those who were clever enough and daring enough to attend would all gather in these remote public places at night (often this was on Halloween and other “holidays”) waiting for the event to take place. When it happened it was always hauntingly beautiful, usually it was performed with little dialogue, and original music performed live by very able musicians. I remember one Halloween watching a performance that took place during a light drizzling rain by a disused railway yard. The eerie dancers were dressed in wispy white outfits and an oboist and violin player provided the surreal music. The musicians shad personal umbrella attendants assigned to them which probably wasn’t part of the original idea and the entire audience was also holding umbrellas. I love that the light rain didn’t deter the group from carrying out the show. More performance art than a legitimate play. I miss that group. they had to disband because they were always getting in trouble with the police for unlicensed public gatherings. Typical of Chicago to be intolerant of this type of unusual performance.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    It really sounds very interesting. And your next to last paragraph is quite true, based on my experience.
    Another problem is there is always so much that can be read, one way or the other, into a holy book. And then there are commentaries on the primary books that become as, or nearly as important, as the book itself. Add to that local interpretations, inductions of older beliefs, sects, and what have you and you have a cats-cradle. (Wasn’t that a book’s title?)
    Example of a localism: Some of the people in one country of my experience, and perhaps elsewhere, do not smoke cigarettes because the book is printed on paper. Well and good, but paper seems a bit off point. Real the Medium is The Message stuff.
    An article in the Washington Post on International Womens’ Day said the next great rallying issue for women must be Equal Rights for Women in Religion. I raise my hand in support of this.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    This year the Anglicans will address the issue of the right of women to serve as bishops. Being a member of a denomination that has no problem that way, I just sigh, but it just goes on. The DV8 performance sounds like one I would dearly love to see, but it would be preaching to the converted as Chris said. Attending a performance which is going to challenge your assumptions is a difficult thing to do, but that is the most important role for theatre, isn’t it? If you come out, think hard, talk it over, yet feel unchanged in your convictions at least you have thought it through and aren’t accepting something blindly.

  4. Laura J says:

    I think because so many have been killed (silenced, what you may) by intolerance that it’s hard for Good People to stand up and draw a line. Saying that there IS a line makes many good people afraid they’ll find themselves turning into Taliban, Righters-to-Life-who-shoot-surgeons, eugenics fans… I’m half-Texan, understanding which has allowed me to be a liberal (small L) against the death penalty who wants to have certain people shot. Extremism on either side is much easier than trying to “live in the tension” retain the right to make some value judgements, and suggest there are objective truths without having to then kill/silence everyone who disagrees with you.

    Not that aspects of the Internet itself would support me, here, of course.

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