DO YOU feel morally superior to the Taliban?
This is the opening question of one of the most talked about 2012 stage productions in London and the latest oeuvre of Australian-born director and choreographer Lloyd Newson.
London-based DV8 Physical Theatre, founded and led by Albury native Newson, is currently performing Can We Talk About This? at London’s National Theatre. Having debuted in Sydney in August 2011, the controversial investigation into Western policies of multiculturalism visa-a-vis Islam is currently touring Europe before continuing onto Asia. Described everywhere on the critical continuum from a “must see” to “Islamophobic sh*t”, Can We Talk About This? is at the very least provoking debate.
Can We Talk About This? is an indefatigable 80 minutes of words and human movement that catalogues some of the most egregious examples of intolerance and stymied freedom of expression from the 1980s to today. The usual suspects are there, including the fatwa on author Salman Rushdie in 1989 and the murder of Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh in 2004 as well as the on-going debates about the place of Sharia courts in the UK and society’s response to forced marriages.
For Newson, violent and discriminatory incidents like these should be more widely known and more openly discussed.
“What I was concerned about was signposting seminal events from then to now, informing the general public of the overall picture,” said Newson in a phone interview with Australian Times. “I feel like I’ve done that successfully.”
Newson admits Can We Talk About This? is about educating the viewing public by showing “hard, empirical evidence” of the “interrelated issues of freedom of speech, multiculturalism and Islam”. The names, organisations and dates selected for discussion are written on the blackboard at the rear of the stage as though in a classroom.
In discussion, Newson is a confident exponent of his message. He fluently recalls the facts and names of the historical events used in the production while at all times employing a verbal judiciousness that underscores the volatility of the subject.
With a background in psychology and social work from the University of Melbourne in the 1970s, Newson has long been fascinated by personal motivations and human behaviour. Newson’s exploration of the consequences of multiculturalism follows an equally impassioned 2009 production titled To Be Straight With You, which explored religious and social positions on sexuality.
And while not everyone agrees with the premise of Can We Talk About This? — with various commentators finding it an oversimplification of complex issues or claiming it gives succour to anti-immigration extremists – the artistic skill of the dancers cannot be faulted. The 10 performers contort themselves into acute angles, dash from one side of the stage to the other and one even does up his a zipper in a headstand while smoothly delivering his lines. Often, it feels like Christopher Hitchens meets the Ross Sisters.
Judging by the standing ovation and loud cheers, Can We Talk About This? is a dramatic success. Yet it remains to be seen whether or not the audience members will henceforth discuss multiculturalism in the franker way Newson desires.
“Freedom of speech is about debating, about arguing, so that, hopefully, the best arguments survive.”
Can We Talk About This? runs at London’s National Theatre until Wednesday 28 March