Q&A and Interviews

Talking About This (continued)

By Diana Damian

4 May 2012

In light of the sensitivity of the material, our conversation is overshadowed by the sheer amount of contextual information needed to frame the topic at hand. Newson is particular about the way he formulates his sentences, and every example given is cross-referenced. All the information in the production has been verified by lawyers, and the research-process in which the interviews were conducted lasted over six months before the editing of the text even began. Following this there was a rehearsal period when the performers came together in the studio, which took five months. Critics have argued against the deliberate choice of portraying such public events, which Newson weaves into a chronology and surfaces against nuanced arguments on Sharia Law. “Some people have argued that the right wing press have or may hijack the work. All I can do is be responsible for what I make, and try to make as intelligent a piece as possible. The majority of the people we interviewed are thoughtful, intelligent people, from a variety of different racial backgrounds who are pro-women, pro-gay and anti-racists.  Of course if you want to represent a wide range of views then, yes, there are also the voices of a small group of white working class thugs in the piece and there’s a few right-wing Islamists, but largely I’ve concentrated on more nuanced arguments from people who have had direct, lived experience of the issues: Islam, Multiculturalism and free speech.”

Hannes Langolf and Christina May Constantinides in Can We Talk About This. Photo by Gergoe Nagy.

The question of who is represented in the piece only gains further symbolic capital in the context of a theatre such as the National. In this instance, Newson’s assumption of intelligence as a form of legitimation can be read as problematic. “The argument is not balanced because these issues are not balanced. I’m not a politician, nor should I be expected to be the impartial voice of the BBC. I’m an artist – who can have an opinion, albeit via the voices of the interviewees and hence this allows me to approach the subject matter as honestly as I can.” It posits the question of responsibility when portraying such issues onstage, but also shows how much the political has woven into the piece. The contestations around Can We Talk About This? tend to not separate personal political views from the responsibilities a theatre piece has to engage with the subject. This tension, however, is also what makes the piece so open to dispute – its argument is not always transparent, and the absence of a counter-voice is very much felt – whether necessary or not, it remains up for discussion.

Have there been any problems in the reception of the piece, given the subject matter? Newson cites an example of a recent performance in Paris where a representative of the Marseille Festival attended. “After we opened a French critic, who really liked the piece, asked the Festival programmer if they were going to take it on, and they said ‘we can’t , twenty-five percent of our population are Muslim, we can’t present this piece.’ Now I think that’s absolutely insulting to the Muslims in Marseilles for assuming they all think alike, and it shows you white French liberals are censoring; taking responsibility for what Muslims can and can’t see. Is that multiculturalism?”