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.