DV8 Physical Theatre: Can We Talk About This?

Posted: June 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on DV8 Physical Theatre: Can We Talk About This?

DV8 Physical Theatre, Can We Talk About This?, Brighton Festival, Corn Exchange, May 24

Joy Constantinides in Can We Talk About This? (photo: Gergoe Nagy)

Joy Constantinides in Can We Talk About This? (photo: Gergoe Nagy)

In the Corn Exchange in Brighton it is oppressively hot. The stage could be a classroom or lobby with parquet flooring and a partition wall (that swings back later to open up the entire stage area) of twelve mirror squares and a door. A section of the front four rows of the audience is reflected in the mirrors as we wait for the show to start, fanning ourselves with DV8’s large 25th anniversary program.

The door opens in the dark, and when the lights come up we see a character doing a handstand against the wall asking us: “Do you feel morally superior to the Taliban?” This is the opening salvo of what creator and director Lloyd Newson calls ‘a verbatim theatre work investigating the interrelated issues of freedom of speech, multiculturalism and Islam as manifest in Western democracies.’ Verbatim theatre means that the text of the performance is based on archival material and interviews with prominent people who have had first-hand experience of these themes in this country and in Europe.

The experience of these prominent people spans the period of multicultural policy from the forced resignation of Bradford school principal Ray Honeyford in 1985 to the present. We are told the question in the title may have come from Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker, when confronted by his Muslim assassin. The doctor who carried out Van Gogh’s autopsy thinks it improbable he would have had the time or the breath to say anything, so perhaps it is a myth, one that Newson maintains nevertheless in deference to Van Gogh.

For those who saw the last DV8 production, To Be Straight With You, the format of Can We Talk About This? is familiar: quoted speech delivered by the cast in a choreographed, gestural format, with archival film material and a classroom board on the back wall on which relevant names, dates and figures are scrawled: a format that is as much documentary as physical theatre.

Although all the quotes are verbatim, they are nevertheless filtered through Newson’s use of body language and gesture, a form of choreographic editing. He can imply sarcasm and disbelief on the one hand or endorsement on the other; there is no middle ground. When a character makes a statement while hopping around the stage from one foot to the other, it is clear what Newson intends. When the figure of Philip Balmforth, the Bradford ‘Vulnerable Persons Officer’ for Asian Women who was suspended from his job by the local council, tells his story, he does so suspended from a bar. The solemn announcement by six performers of the names of those killed by Islamic fundamentalists for their crimes against Islam is staged as a denouncement, and the figure of Fleming Rose, the Danish publisher of the Mohammed cartoons, is portrayed slithering up and down a wall and balancing on his head with the same chilling nonchalance as his conclusion: “We don’t publish the cartoons any more.”

In these examples and throughout the performance, the level of artistry and commitment of the dancers is superb.

With 25 years of making visually striking, often controversial physical theatre, in which the message is bound up in the imagery, there is a sense in Newson’s two most recent works that he wants to undress his message and put it centre stage; that in Can We Talk About This? we are in effect in the (stiflingly hot) church of DV8, listening to Newson in the bully pulpit.

There are two problems here: firstly, there is a self-righteousness that permeates the sermon; whether or not it is intended, it is easy to come away from the densely argued performance with the impression that Islam is a force for evil that is encroaching on our freedoms. Given England’s legacy of colonial interference in the Middle East, there is an irony here that Newson simply waves away as an irrelevant distraction. It serves him well to start his story in 1985, but the history of multiculturalism in England has its roots from well before then and they have to be taken into account. The second problem is that by associating all Muslims with the fanatics, Newson is in danger of polarising his argument into an equally fanatical stance.

An essay entitled Violence & Civil Society by Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen, a fellow and former master of Trinity College, Cambridge, addresses the basic issue of how to defuse tensions in a potentially violent, multicultural society: “The first challenge is to overcome confused and flammable readings of the world. While we human beings all have many affiliations – related to nationality, language, religion, profession, neighbourhood, social commitments and other connections – the cultivation of group violence proceeds through separating out one affiliation as someone’s only significant identity.
It is not just terrorists and other cultivators of group-based violence who champion this outlook. In the West those who see religious divisions as uniquely significant, who read conflict as an inevitable ‘clash of civilizations’, lend it support.”

Can we talk about this? Yes, of course we can, but let’s bear in mind another of Professor Sen’s counsels to “resist the tempting shortcuts that claim to deliver insight through … single-minded concentration on one factor or another, ignoring other important features of an integrated character.” Newson is undoubtedly brave to take on such an emotionally complex subject as multiculturalism but it is not well served by his well-known confrontational manner; his stance will inflame, which is perhaps what he wants to do. Rather than thinking Can We Talk About This? has gone too far, however, it may be more accurate to suggest it has not gone far enough. At the end of his essay, Professor Sen quotes a remark by Proust: “Do not be afraid to go too far, for the truth lies beyond.”