Reviews West End & Central Published 14 March 2012

Can We Talk About This?

National Theatre ⋄ 11th- 28th March 2012

On the problematic nature of tolerance.

Diana Damian Martin

Their bodies frame the stage, swinging like pendulums, engaging in different configurations: sometimes fixed, sometimes oscillating. This serves as apt metaphor for the way DV8’s new dance theatre piece engages with binaries: the cultural versus the political, the personal versus the public.

The production explores the discourses surrounding freedom of speech, Islam and multiculturalism whilst exposing their hidden  narratives; a woman’s body becomes the site of oppression and liberation, her words creating a map on her skin. There’s a constant shift between representing and illustrating through the rupturing of physical rhythms. The piece teeters on the edge of the confrontational in a controlled, precise and engaging manner.

Can We Talk About This? exposes and problematizes the paradigm of equality. The piece dissects tolerance as a social and political practice in the context of the discourses surrounding Islam. It’s a show as much about social politics – differentiating between multiculturalism as a mentality and as policy – as it is about attitudes. The piece chronicles the most public and exposing events surrounding Islam in the West, post-Rushdie, looking at Sharia Law, Ann Cryer’s campaign against forced marriage, and the death of the film maker Theo Van Gogh. If such subjects carry with them symbolic baggage which makes them harder to address in the public sphere, DV8 understand and engage with this problematic process.

In its juxtaposition of movement and speech, Can We Talk About This? carries the audience in and out of arguments and ascribes social and political nuance to the testimonies presented. The body becomes the site of discourse which is at times emotive, at times allegorical; the body moves between the social, political and personal, a complex web the threads of which are never tied together.

It’s the physical language of the show that is most potent, as each movement provides a counterpart to the spoken text. These movements can be robotic, deconstructive, ironic, and fluid, reflecting the cadences of the speech. Yet the rhythms of the piece – both visual and physical – which these movements create can sometimes jar, almost taming the danger of some of the statements being made, diffusing their rhetorical power.

As a documentary piece, Can We Talk About This? is obliquely polished, glossing over its more problematic elements with skilful rhetoric; it’s a show that begins with a question, then tackles its recent history whilst also including personal testimony. Yet the production is also inherently tautological, never defining the terms with which it approaches the discussion; nor does it do enough to make visible and acknowledge its own perspective.  There’s a symbiosis between what constitutes law and religion that requires urgent clarification before any theatrical discourse can begin. Despite its eloquence, the production stops short of creating any genuine confrontation because it doesn’t fully address the variables of the discussion, preferring instead to sift through a range of topics that support its central axis, overwhelmed by the weight of content.

The problem is that the full complexity of the issues under discussion is left under-addressed during the performance; it’s undeniable that the confidence of the piece allows it to fuse together arguments that would otherwise be unable to come together on stage, but at the same time the piece’s reluctance to acknowledge its own argument makes it prone to  misunderstandings.

Rights are not synonymous with cultural ideals, and inherent in the liberal and democratic vow for freedom of speech there is a paradox, because equality and law cannot and should not be protected by cultural specificity. Director Lloyd Newson never fleshes out the discrepancy between Islam as a religion and Islam as a culture; perhaps this is why the piece remains so open to political appropriation. It’s an inherent risk that the company are rightfully willing to take, but in the fusion between the physical and textual landscapes, there’s a lack of regard for the audience. As a result, the sheer weight and urgency of the questions raised remains too tangled in the piece’s textual mechanics.

Yet a production’s politics is not its defining quality; DV8 present a highly complex and skilfully-woven documentary work that succeeds in exploring ideas fundamental to contemporary society. The performers bring an impressive energy to the piece, bringing nuance and texture to the verbatim sequences. The precision of the production’s semiotic discourse, the variety of its approach and the questions ultimately raised are not to be dismissed; yet what remains is the question of responsibility when it comes to presenting such confrontational topics in any form. Is it enough to simply discuss a subject without defining the terms of the discussion?


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.

Can We Talk About This? Show Info

Directed by Lloyd Newson

Cast includes Joy Constantinides, Lee Davern, Kim-Jomi Fischer, Ermira Goro, Hannes Langolf, Samir M’Kirech, Christina May, Seeta Patel, Anwar Russell, Ira Mandela Siobhan.


Running Time 1 hr 20 mins (no interval)



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