Can We Talk About This?
Conceived and directed by Lloyd Newson
DV8 Physical Theatre
The Lowry, Salford
From 18 May 2012 to 19 May 2012
Review by David Chadderton
DV8's latest production poses its general question in its title, but it begins by posing another question to its audience and waiting for a show of hands: "Do you feel morally superior to the Taliban?". When the performer who poses the question gets a poor response, he tells the audience that they should feel exactly that.
Here lies the key to Newson's argument: that there are aspects of Islam that are antithetical to Western morality and laws, but well-meaning, white liberals are unwilling to speak out against them for fear of being labelled as racist or Islamophobic or, in some cases, for fear of their personal safety.
A number of well-known examples are cited including the Salman Rushdie fatwa (and the controversy over his knighthood), the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and the Norwegian Mohammed cartoons, but at one point dozens of names are reeled off and their photos peeled off and sent cascading to the floor, people who were condemned, attacked or killed after speaking out against Moslems or some aspect of their beliefs. It seems that one of Newson's biggest concerns is the treatment of women, including violence against women and forced marriage.
While there are a few responses from moderate Moslems and an argument that even those with the most extreme views should be granted the right of free speech, this is largely a polemical piece, a call to arms to white liberals to stop tolerating behaviour and actions carried out under the banner of Islam that they wouldn't tolerate if carried out by anyone else.
There is no attempt to formulate any kind of fictional narrative to put these views across. Newson describes it in his notes in the huge programme—far too big to fit in most bags, but at least it does include a lovely pull-out to celebrate 25 years of DV8—as "verbatim theatre", and it certainly does take from that genre the idea of interviewing people close to the issue and putting their words directly into the mouths of actors.
However this is DV8, and so the performers are constantly moving in non-naturalistic ways while they speak these words in a perfectly natural way. This movement may prove a barrier to some people as, despite its beauty and impressive physicality, it is often difficult to see how it connects to the words; there were certainly a few laughs from the school parties on press night at the quirkier movements. This may be an inevitable issue with combining a form based largely on words such as verbatim theatre with one based on abstract movement such as dance or physical theatre. Can it be argued that this is Brechtian alienation or does it just distract from the words, where the real meat of this piece lies?
So if we aren't watching a plot-driven play and the aim of the piece is to convince the audience of its point of view, the real test is in how effectively it presents its argument, particularly to those who may initially be sceptical. It's unlikely to convince a fundamental Islamist who believes that Salman Rushdie should be killed and the 9/11 attack was justified to change his or her views, but then this isn't the target audience. The piece is trying to convince the white middle class that racial and religious tolerance and a multicultural ideal for society do not justify toleration of threats, violence and murder.
This isn't a difficult proposal to disagree with and the show has lots of well-researched information to back up its argument, but, like all polemics, it is in danger of overstating its case by cherry-picking the evidence. The Salman Rushdie fatwa and Theo van Gogh murder cases certainly illustrate threats and murder in the name of Islam, but how this relates to the argument about the attitudes of white liberals—who never sought to publicly justify either event to my knowledge—isn't made entirely clear. In fact—with some significant exceptions—much of the piece consists of examples of extreme, intolerant actions and views from certain Moslems without any indication that we have been prevented from "talking about this".
The danger of this is that, despite its frequent assertions that it is not anti-Islam, much of it comes across as a tirade against some areas of the Islamic faith and could be used to fuel Islamophobia; on the other hand, the cases mentioned should have attention drawn to them and steps should be taken to prevent them happening again. But is there evidence that a fear of talking about the issues played a part in any of them? In some cases, yes, but in most, the link isn't made clear if it exists at all.
By criticising the central argument, I am in danger of being accused of exactly what the play claims to be about: quashing discussion of the issues. But I'm not; the issues should be raised, but the play doesn't always seem sure what its main argument is.
Having said that, the production is slick and the performances very impressive all round, both physically and vocally. Anna Fleischle's set design looks rather like a recreation of a rehearsal room, with mirrors on one side and a nice big wall to write on. Despite a lack of clarity in the argument, this is a very well-researched piece with lots of food for thought, so the audience should leave the theatre talking about something, even if they weren't sure whether they could talk about it before.