Can We Talk About This? – DV8’s latest co-production with the National Theatre, currently on a global tour – tackles the issues surrounding Islam and freedom of speech. It aims to outline the failures of multiculturalism as a state policy and explores the problematic side-effects of cultural relativism. The piece looks at conflicts between the law and religion in regards to Islam, starting in 1985 – with Ray Honeyford’s imposed resignation as Head Teacher of Drummond Middle School in Bradford, following accusation of racism which resulted from an article he published in which he discussed the failures of state multiculturalism – and finishing up in 2012, with the case of Usama Hasan, an academic and Imam who received death threats for suggesting that Darwin’s evolutionary theory was compatible with the Koran.
Movement is a crucial element of company’s work and of this piece in particular; at time it’s abstract, at other times it’s representational. This use of movement serves as a counterpoint to the interviews and testimonials that make up the verbatim piece, but is is also a way to create nuance.
Lloyd Newson, DV8’s director, and I meet in the busy Artsadmin cafe to talk about the piece in detail. Newson is an auteur who founded the company in 1986 and who has led it ever since, his work bringing elements of the theatrical into dance. Born in Australia, a graduate with a degree in social work and psychology, Newson worked as a dancer but became frustrated with the conformism of dance; he founded DV8 Physical Theatre with the aim of making more risk-taking work and bringing socio-political issues to the stage.
DV8’s physical language extends beyond the representational; it deconstructs topical issues such as masculinity or sexuality through daring, confrontational pieces of post-modern dance. Their piece Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (1988) was inspired by the life of serial killer Dennis Nilsen. It interwove the themes of violence, homoeroticism and the need for love in a way that was harrowing and bleak, giving voice to issues that had no place in the public arena at the time. Dead Dreams gave DV8 a reputation for bringing hard subjects to the stage.
And just as in Dead Dreams, there is a detailed choreographic spatial relationships between the performers in Can We Talk About This?. Distance, direction and the speed with which the performers approach or are repelled by one another are central to understanding the shifts between the various characters and conversations. “In Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men I had gay men saying you shouldn’t be talking about this, this isn’t good for our image, you need to say something more positive about being gay. But that was how I felt at the time. The work was my honest response to the bleak story of Dennis Nilsen combined with the fact that Thatcher’s government had introduced Clause 28, which meant teachers, libraries, and public funded bodies had to refrain from presenting positive images of gay people. Dead Dreams was not a blanket condemnation of homosexuality, in the same way Can We Talk About This?, by looking at negative aspects of a religion and I stress the word aspects, specifically in relation to women and free speech, is not a blanket condemnation of Islam”
Does it matter to him that people expect there to be positive representation of aspects of Islam? “It’s not about what you can say about Islam, it’s really what you can’t say about Islam, that’s what the piece is about.”