It was the neat plug sockets, the fire-proof doors, the concrete-coloured walls, but most of all the horribly kitsch laminate wooden flooring that really set the scene. Brilliantly unspecific, yet instantly recognisable: welcome to the Institution. Where are we? A school hall, a courtroom foyer, a council chamber? The set for DV8’s latest production Can We Talk About This? could have been any one of these, any bureaucratised civic space, any pied à terre of the “powers that be”, anywhere in which the formal stench of institution was overpowering.
The characters in this verbatim performance zoom, twist and sprint in and out of this space with impressive energy, a collection of disparate voices that are all temporary guests in what feels like a theatrical Annual General Meeting. On the agenda: the paradoxes of free speech, the failings of multiculturalism, and Islamophobia in Britain, in that order, with a very brief footnote on physical theatre. The performers recite texts from articles and interviews with teachers, social workers, artists, politicians, members of the community and others who have had experience of the issues surrounding Islam in Britain. Simultaneously, they perform a virtuoso and athletic choreography which, although lending little to the piece semantically or emotively, does serve to sever the voice from the performers’ bodies in an uncanny effect of ventriloquy, a kind of dance version of newspaper ‘talking heads’.
And where indeed is the debate staged? Anna Fleischle’s subtle and evocative set design is inevitably tinged with irony, since its platform in London is the National Theatre, the hulking concrete bulwark of the British theatre institution. DV8 got a standing ovation from my audience, a fact which must be treated with all due suspicion. Have DV8 lost their deviancy? Are they preaching to the converted? When I contacted director Lloyd Newson to request an interview dealing critically with the piece, I was politely refused: he felt he had “done enough”. For someone who considers his dialogue with audiences has come to a conclusion, perhaps “can we talk about this?” wasn’t the best question to be asking.
The title of the piece, at first glance simply a rather leading question, was in fact more than a little misleading. What I took to be an inclusive ‘we’, positing the theatre as forum, discussion and dialogue, actually turned out to refer solely to the company itself. The performance opened with Martin Amis’s petition, “Hands up, those of you who feel morally superior to the Taliban.” Struck with self-doubt, I was optimistic about the challenges DV8 might pose to my own values. But despite such moments of audience interaction, I felt primarily that I was being presented with an argument, not asked to enter into a discussion. And although the use of verbatim text ostensibly encompassed a variety of voices, there was no question that they were all singing from the same hymn sheet; one that read: “Cultural sensitivity is overrated, Islam deserves heavier criticism.” A persuasive array of arguments were lined up: double standards in endorsing freedom of speech, violence, sometimes fatal, against critics of Islam, and forced marriages and ‘honour abuse’ of Muslim women. This arsenal was represented by lists upon lists of chalked up names and tumbling images of victims’ faces, an aesthetics of accumulation which weighed exponentially upon only one side of the balance sheet.