At the National Theatre

Philippa Thomas

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.


  • 26 March 2012 at 5:43pm
    mark ramsden says:
    "and there were boos and hisses when we heard about a young woman having to live under police protection after escaping an arranged marriage."

    Yes, why weren't they cheering on Honour Killings, female genital mutilation and paedophile gangs? Truly baffling.

    As for supposed 'ordinary Muslims', they're either too scared to speak out or agree with what's happening. Why else would a Stalinist crook like Ken Livingstone be so eager for their votes?

    My sister, now retired, spent years trying to stop pre teen children being shipped out to marry Pakistani farmers, once being spat at by a taxi driver, (probably for being a lone woman). My cousin, another impeccable liberal was jumped by a street gang selling drugs by day & Jihad by night. Luckily he's good at martial arts. Anyone who has ever lived in Bradford or Tower Hamlets knows what is happening, massive electoral fraud being the least of it, while the left sleeps on or pockets vast amounts of cash for ludicrous 'diversity' non jobs. There's few surviving Communists to support so I suppose this is all they have.

    Anyway, you won't be getting any more money from me.

    • 26 March 2012 at 9:51pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ mark ramsden
      Nothing like a ringing defence of freedom of speech.

      "The public schools, the House of Lords, the Church of England, the holy institution of marriage, even our magnificent police force are no longer safe from those who would undermine our society. It's about time we said 'enough is enough' and saw a return to the traditional British values of discipline, obedience, morality and freedom. Freedom from the reds and the blacks and the criminals, prostitutes, pansies and punks, football hooligans, juvenile delinquents, lesbians and left wing scum. Freedom from the niggers and the Pakis and the unions, freedom from the Gipsies and the Jews. Freedom from leftwing layabouts and liberals, freedom from the likes of you!"

      Something just put me in mind of that.

    • 27 March 2012 at 1:14am
      Bob Beck says: @ Phil Edwards
      Quite. "Where have you gone, Mr. Robinson? A nation turns its lonely eyes, &c., &c...."

  • 28 March 2012 at 10:33am
    outofdate says:
    Two things: 1. Proportional representation of ideological or religious groups is not among the duties the arts may reasonably be expected to perform. 2. In Muslim-majority countries, Muslims are not under-represented in the arts, though the arts are sometimes under-represented there.

    In fairness to the other side, it should also be pointed out that 'female genital mutilation, honour killings and paedophile gangs' not only have no basis in Islamic thought or tradition but aren't even overwhelmingly Muslim phenomena. It is, however, true that belligerent, ill-informed self-righteousness is a uniquely British trait with deep roots in the country's cultural and religious history.

    • 28 March 2012 at 2:48pm
      Bob Beck says: @ outofdate
      I'm not sure if your last sentence is written with tongue at all in cheek; but I can assure you that belligerent, ill-informed self-righteousness is not, alas, a uniquely British trait. I write this from Canada.

    • 28 March 2012 at 3:14pm
      outofdate says: @ Bob Beck
      Now don't you come pissing on my parade with your reasonableness.

    • 28 March 2012 at 4:47pm
      Bob Beck says: @ outofdate
      Beg pardon -- I suppose any nation needs something to be proud of. Hereabouts, it could be something closer to passive-aggressive (or covert), ill-informed self-righteousness. Take our current Prime Minister. Please.

  • 29 March 2012 at 6:32pm
    Janet Haney says:
    Yes, I saw this at the National, and was initially puzzled by the significance of the dancing in relation to the words. As I started to try to talk about it I began to realise that my body was very much taking part and that fear, excitement and confusion were all manifest as irritations which were difficult to keep out of my voice. It has taken me some time and some more work to figure out what that meant for me. But I think that Philippa Thomas might need to reflect on the cause of her irritation too. She has misrepresented the piece by using a very broad brush which has inevitably obliterated much of what was presented and has let us down by simply painting the piece as politically incorrect. The point to keep in mind here is that the DV8 piece is about ideas, ideas that get written onto bodies in more or less violent ways. It really doesn't matter what colour or what shape a body is if it is in the service of a valuable idea trying to protect another from a dangerous and violent idea. There were several different parts of the performance that elaborated the problem of violence, threatened and real, on a number of different shapes and colours of body. What this experience did for me was to send me back to Gareth Peirce's important book Dispatches from the Dark Side, and to rent a series of films from Iran (eg The Circle, which I totally missed for the last 10 years and highly recommend). One doesn't cancel out the other - rather I think that lifting the taboo on one set of ideas may well lift the taboo on the other side (ie we also need to talk about the torture and injustice of rendition) - it is up to us to make the extra effort to overcome the irritations present in our own bodies that result from hearing awful news, or the breaking of any taboo: otherwise we will trample on ideas that rather need to be carefully articulated.

Read more