As I sat fixed to my seat at Théâtre de la Ville watching the latest DV8 production Can We Talk About This? there was a moment when it suddenly crossed my mind that it would not be surprising if someone, even a group of people, wielding machine guns burst into the theater and held us all hostage. And if indeed this were to occur, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the political or religious identity of those with the guns. For Lloyd Newson’s documentary “physical theater” takes no definitive stance on the highly-charged and thorny discourses on Islamic law, multiculturalism, xenophobia and racial intolerance. As its title suggests, Can We Talk About This? is a manifesto-like call for open and honest discussion of what it demonstrates to be the decades old conflict between Muslims and Christians in the West, and particularly, in Britain. The absence of truths is what lifts the credibility and conviction of Can We Talk About This? above and beyond all the other representations of what should and should not be done to resolve the otherwise irreconcilable ruptures in British society. All that said, despite its intention to open the doors to debate, rather than to point fingers, this is a searing critique of the British government’s irresponsible, and ultimately, racist address of these problems.
I am no theater critic, but I do know that DV8’s Can We Talk About This? is exciting because it pushes at the boundaries of what dance conventionally does. The eleven actors/dancers perform what looks to be the most exhausting performance as they constantly move their bodies in impossible ways and simultaneously talk, speaking the words of many figures from all sides of the debate who gave interviews for the piece. This might be the closest dance comes to documentary as the actors move in and out of character playing historical figures who have spoken out against and for observance of the Koran, forced marriage, crimes of honor and racial violence.
What I most appreciated about the multiplicity of representation — words, body movement, sounds, acting, archival footage screened on monitors — was the movement of the dancers/actors. In what I understand is a characteristic of Newson’s choreography, their movements were exaggerated gestures from every day life transformed into fluid dance. A nervous rolling of the hands, a repeated lift of the shoulder, a turn of the head made in tandem with one, two or three others, a sudden shut down of the body in reaction to the fear incited by an opponent. All of these gestures were legible, if exaggerated and transformed into the medium of dance. Similarly, when two or more of they dancers were on stage, they may have danced in pairs, but they never danced together, always working off one another, using each other as props, to shape their own body. I understood these subtly confrontational movements that never directly responded to or engaged with the other to echo the form of public discourse and debate on racial integration, the upholding of Sharia Law and so on in Britain today: no one ever says what they mean, and they never say it directly to the one concerned. I understood the physical movements and the dancers’ lack of direct relationship to each other to be a critique of the age old British tendency to talk at cross purposes, to avoid the truth when it hurts, and to use each other as a ploy to get what they want. There is even one scene when a dancer playing Ann Cryer, British Politician who campaigned against forced marriage, sits on another dancer and drinks a cup of tea. It’s the inability to say what is meant, preferring to drink tea when things get too tough, that makes the discourse go round and round in circles. The contortions of the body, the dancers’ wrapping themselves around corners, standing upside down, are the very acrobatics that we all do to avoid having to talk about the challenges of reality.
DV8 do not present any material we don’t already know. From the Fatwa against Salman Rushdie, through the brutal slaying of Theo van Gogh for his film Submission about a woman forced into marriage by her family and raped by her uncle, to the establishment of Sharia Law councils in the UK, nothing new is revealed about the tensions and conflict between the Muslim and the Western worlds. But the way this material is presented makes it worthy of outrage. There were many moments that induced such incredulity in me. To name just one – on a monitor isolated by a darkened stage, an adamant David Cameron insists that less tolerance be shown to those who speak out against “whites” (his term) in an effort to bring equality to the insistence on the practices that condemn and punish racial prejudice against “Muslims”. I wondered silently, is he stupid? racist? a political fool?
As I say, the question in the work’s title is left as a question. There are no answers given in this powerful piece of dance theater. But then, simultaneously, as a question, “Can we talk about this?” becomes the solution to the problem. In spite of the powerful juxtaposition of contradictions and incompatibilities, the ultimate message of the piece is clear: we need to sit down and discuss. And we need to discuss not religious beliefs but the plight of the individuals who hold those beliefs. Like the impact of the great manifestoes in history, we come out of Théâtre de la Ville with raised fists and a determination to fight the long struggle to commence responsible discourse on issues which are, to be sure, tearing apart the very fabric of everyday life, and not only in Britain.