Features Essays Published 4 May 2012

We Didn’t Talk About This

A polemic on the dialogic failures and the problems of representation that dogged DV8's Can We Talk About This?
Ella Parry-Davies

The question of women in Islam fell just short of becoming a race to the finish line of victimisation: we seemed to be presented with the choice of whose rights to protect, those of women or those of Muslim culture. Notably, there was not a single female voice speaking positively about their experience of Islam throughout the performance, a decision which surely denies the diversity expressed by Muslim women. As one female performer drew lines over her body, symbolising the personal threat provoked by her writing, I found myself asking how textualised the Muslim female had become for white ‘liberals’ of both sexes: has Britain denied women in Islam genuine and individual voices? Have these women become the hollowed-out receptacle for a pseudo-leftist attack on Islamic culture?

Discourses such as these were reproduced rather than challenged in the performance. The tabloid-sized program was perhaps an allusion to the media; in addition, television reports were replayed by on-stage screens, and audio excerpts from programs such as Question Time were used. Like its relationship to the theatrical institution, DV8’s approach to the press was sadly let down by a lack of critique. The juxtaposition of sound, videoprojection, live dancers and verbatim text could have provided an ideal polysemy, and one that would have epitomised the theatre’s capacity for diversity of expression. One performer, however, pointed to the television screen, identifying herself as one of the crowd, two male Muslim characters began to chant protest slogans along with the televised demonstrators, and the National Theatre audience were raised to applause by that of David Dimbleby’s guests. At no point did the piece explicitly call media presentations of the issues to account, nor did it hint more widely at the media terrain in which Islam and Muslims are represented as demons and, or,  problems. The liveness of theatre was used not to contrast, but to assimilate and reinforce the axioms of the televised press.

Joy Constantinides in DV8's Can We Talk About This?. Photo by Gergoe Nagy.

On the other hand, the performance did seem to attempt a degree of self-reflexivity. In a dreamy, metatheatrical moment, a solo dancer took to the stage in a dim, steely glow, whilst roughly cut audio clips were played in which the word “interpretation” was repeated in various contexts. This stood out as a moment of auto-critique, perhaps an address to the audience, a call to view the piece as just one interpretation, or maybe even to make our own? Unsurprisingly, Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’ hadn’t made it to the soundboard, but if it had, may have cast a very different light on the performance: “To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world.” Although Sontag was referring to the interpretation of art, is it not equally dangerous to impose interpretation on real events, real lives and real voices? DV8 failed to address its medium, to own up to the fact that a verbatim text by no means constitutes the full picture. Selections and interpretations have to be made, and the vast majority of voices speaking about this topic were excluded.

The title of the piece is drawn from an eye-witness account of the murder of Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film-maker who produced a film critiquing the treatment of women in Islam, and was subsequently assassinated by a Muslim, Mohammed Bouyeri, in 2004. The witness is quoted at length in the production, describing the violence and van Gogh’s attempt to ask his killers for mercy. “Can we talk about this?” is apparently what he tried to say as he was shot and stabbed to death. So whilst DV8 may open with a question, the possibility of dialogue is closed off. In foregrounding this extreme, powerful and irrefutable injustice, they drive home an emphatic and emotive answer.

Read our interview with Lloyd Newson discussing Can We Talk About This?.


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Ella Parry-Davies

Ella is a research student working in interdisciplinary approaches to theatre and performance studies, funded by King's College London and the National University of Singapore, and also publishes regularly on illustration. She is currently co-convenor of Beirut: Bodies in Public, a conference held in association with Performance Philosophy, and of Research with Reach, a training initiative based at King's for thoughtful, provocative and engaging research outside of academia. She is from east London but has also lived and worked professionally as a set designer in France

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