Lloyd Newson and DV8’s latest work ‘deals with freedom of speech, censorship and Islam’. The ‘documentary-style dance-theatre production’ using ‘real-life interviews and archive footage’, currently on at the National Theatre, is called Can We Talk about This? But a more appropriate title would have been ‘the trouble with Islam’. The work pretends to be a dialogue, but is utterly one-sided, presenting only the opinions of people who see something inherently wrong with Islam, or of Islamists with views guaranteed to offend a liberal audience.
Newson criticises ‘state multiculturalism’ as a failed policy and blames immigrants for ‘not wanting to fit in’. Given the current state of European politics, this is pushing at an open door. A more nuanced contribution to the ‘debate about Islam’ wouldn’t take as its starting point the time when ‘we’ made room for ‘them’.
Women’s rights, as so often in ‘liberal debate’, are used as an emotional fishhook. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has written about the way in which colonialism has been justified on the grounds of ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’, as if sexism in the West were a thing of the past. Martin Amis (‘the trouble with us in the West is that we succumb to a pious paralysis where we can’t even say that we’re superior to the Taliban. Why can’t we?’) seems an incongruous choice of spokesman for a feminist critique of Islam.
The night I was there, some of the audience whooped with excitement when the English Defence League were shown on television screens on stage, and there were boos and hisses when we heard about a young woman having to live under police protection after escaping an arranged marriage. A pantomime needs its heroes as well as its villains: Can We Talk about This? makes Geert Wilders out to be a brave knight of reason and free speech, and makes no mention of his far-right politics or slick populist ambitions.
At the end of the performance a sign flashes up to inform the audience that ‘every word spoken on the stage’ comes from archive material and interviews ‘with leading figures from across the religious, political, cultural and social spectrum’. I was reminded of the message that pops up on TV at the beginning of The Only Way Is Essex: ‘The tans you see might be fake but the people are all real although some of what they do has been set up purely for your entertainment.’ The caveat doesn’t stop viewers taking what happens on screen as a reflection of reality, and really hating the cast of TOWIE, some of whom have been subject to violent attacks. The form of such programming allows viewers to hate without responsibility. Can We Talk about This? may be ‘verbatim theatre’, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t tendentious.
Even the message given by the choreography is culpably clear. The performers chase each other with menacing intent, or bob about after each other like lemmings, or move stiffly to a metronome like puppets.
Muslims are under-represented in the arts, an imbalance that Newson does little to correct: the voices most notably absent from his work are those of ordinary Muslims. It’s not clear who Newson thinks he’s having his conversation with. Can We Talk about This? feels more like gossiping behind somebody’s back.