Features Q&A and Interviews Published 4 May 2012

Talking About This

Currently touring the globe, DV8's Can We Talk About This? is a provocative tackling of the perceived silence around aspects of Islam. Our Performance Editor meets the company's Director Lloyd Newson, to discuss the issues raised by he piece.
Diana Damian Martin

Newson chose a verbatim approach rather than a fictional one, because he realized he could easily be dismissed, as a gay, white atheist with strong views on the subject of Islam and the failures of cultural relativism. “Due to the diversity and background of the interviewees – these are people who have put their life on the line for their beliefs – there’s an authenticity and a weight to their words and whether you like it or not, you can’t say their experiences, and we focus on facts not feelings in the work, are not true or not valid.“

The cast were chosen to match the ethnicities of the interviewees as best as possible, embodying the underlying sentiments without resorting to overtly theatrical characterization. “We spent a year and a half finding the right people, who could match the ethnicities of the interviewees, who could speak and dance, it’s very tricky. Within Britain, which has a 92% white population, I find it extremely difficult to find white dancers at the technical level I normally require. As the South Asian population in Britain is only 4 % this made casting all the more difficult, especially as we needed people to speak with Britain’s accents and this includes British Asian accents.  Hence we don’t really have understudies, despite auditioning around the world.”

Can We Talk About This? is certainly not the first production to aestheticize a topical issue, but it depoliticizes the human form in a way that previous DV8 work hasn’t. The text, rather than the body, leads the piece. Newson adds, “It’s important to acknowledge the power of words, in a work primarily about religion because many of the beliefs and stories, which people agree or disagree with, come from religious texts. And in turn our interviewees use words, not their bodies to respond to these issues. Undoubtedly on a larger scale the things I and many of our interviewees find objectionable about religion is that it wants to tell woman and gay people what they should be doing with their bodies. It’s words from the Koran and Hadiths that are used to justify men hitting women or women being stoned for adultery.”

Lee Davern in DV8's Can We Talk About This. Photo by Matt Nettheim.

DV8 started working on the piece over two and a half years ago and the issues remain topical, but criticisms of aspects of Islam are problematic due to perceptions of what constitutes Islamophobia. Newson tells me about the recent incident surrounding the ASH (Atheist, Secularist, Humanist) London School of Economics Society’s publishing of a Jesus and Mo cartoon in solidarity with the similar society at UCL which prompted accusations of Islamophobia from the Student Union and a request to take the cartoons down. “As a result, the LSE Student Union had a vote and they passed this March a statement that said ‘Islamophobia is a form of anti-Islamic racism.’ So it equated Islamophobia with racism.” He underlines that this is dangerous thinking because it elevates Islam, a set of ideas, to something “as permanent and unchangeable as race. This means you cannot challenge it.”

“When you’re trying to be sensitive to people’s religious beliefs it’s important to ask yourself who benefits and who suffers.  Are we in the West actually failing to protect the very people that multicultural policies initially set out to protect? Under the banner of state sponsored multiculturalism, also known as cultural relativism, Britain has allowed 85 Sharia councils to operate, courts that do not offer Muslim women, gay Muslims and Muslims from different sects the same and equal rights it offers to non-Muslim British people. This is where the real racism lies.”

Can We Talk About This? is currently touring globally. And you can read our polemic on DV8, We Didn’t Talk About This?


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Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

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