Culture Magazine

Can We Actually Talk About the Polemic Can We Talk About This?

By Periscope @periscopepost
Can we actually talk about the polemic Can We Talk About This?

DV8. Photo credit: Oliver Manzi

The term ‘brave’ is overused in theatre, and it is usually deployed by way of euphemism. Can We Talk About This? is determinedly, wilfully brave, seeking as it does to make the case against multiculturalism (and specifically Islamism) through the medium of dance. Never mind that much of the choreography – and the cast – reflect the very virtues of diversity in modern Britain.

DV8, the acclaimed ‘physical theatre’ troupe – as opposed to regular theatre, of course, which we must presume has no corporeal quality whatsoever – have relied on a chorus of euphoric notices from Australia to market this show in the UK. The production is polarising in more ways than one: consider Quentin Letts’ review in the Daily Mail alongside Michael Billington’s in the Guardian. One triumphantly acclaims a political watershed in these isles (“Finally! A polemic against misguided Western Liberalism… in the cockpit of Leftwing London’s arts”), whilst pouring scorn on its “pseudish, irritating… hyper-styled” dance aspects.  The other deadpans: “the physical side of the show is impressive… but intellectually, the show is full of holes.” It should be clear enough which is which.

The Telegraph and Independent have entrenched these same positions. Can we really be witnessing “by some distance, the most urgent and important stage production now running in London” (albeit that “the stylised movement that accompanies the play’s riveting verbal content adds almost nothing”)? Or is it, as the Indie has it: “technically fascinating, expertly executed and crudely bludgeoning… a dance-enhanced polemic”?

In writing up this play, seems inevitable that the left in the media – the self-styled voice of the arts – would praise the experimental medium whilst excoriating the politics; likewise the right would feel the need to apologize for the ‘arty-farty’ presentation, whilst clinging to the message as an article of faith.

The reason I draw out these predictable differences in approach is to ask the question: what shackles freedom of debate in Britain in 2012? Is it, in the thesis of this play, religious extremism – allied to political correctness and libel laws? Or does our partisan media stifle debate as much as provoke it, entrenching acquired political values which go untested? Each writer in every paper knows their reader. Every word committed to print bears the burden of an assumed cultural position.

Lloyd Newson’s surprising production can at least be commended for defying these assumptions. One of the narratives within the play concerns Dutch politician Geert Wilders – who insists he is a ‘right-wing liberal’, an anti-Islamic proponent of tolerant values and free speech (although the text of the play skirts over some of his more unpalatable utterances).

There is something refreshing about political views which don’t come in pre-packed bundles, where to believe one means you must buy another. Compare the tedious climate of schism under Obama in the US, where hatred of big government means distrust of environmentalism; where good Christians abhor social healthcare; and where the sanctity of human life rarely extends to death row or gun control. Political views which are bought as a package do not always make logical bedfellows, and it is a truism in Western democracies that ‘bedding in’ fundamentalist Islam is a cause of tremendous philosophical confusion to the traditional left.

“If a BNP rally was scripted by Peter Hitchens and combined with a ferret-down-the-trousers competition, the overall effect would be hard to distinguish from this.”

Still, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, if a BNP rally was scripted by Peter Hitchens and combined with a ferret-down-the-trousers competition, the overall effect would be hard to distinguish from this.

I will seek to make no further comment about the politics of the piece. It is true that the work is a polemic, because – while speaking at all times in measured terms – at no point in its long 80 minutes does it deliver the expected counterblast to the prevailing thesis: namely that Western liberalism cannot bow to cultural relativism, and that Islam, or rather Islamism (although the distinction is rarely made out clearly), is the great Satan of free speech.

The producers suggest that freedom of expression, not politics, is the message of the piece. So I return to the question it poses: can we, in fact, talk about it?

Some reviews have called out the rhetorical nature of the title: by staging the play at the National Theatre (so the argument goes) free from prosecution or repercussion, they have surely answered their own question. This argument does ignore the more playful flipside, however. By asking, er… can we talk about this?, Newson introduces the frisson of a domestic showdown. He essentially calls for an end to the conspiracy of silence. He seeks deliberately to light the touch-paper and, in effect, ‘have it out’.

In that sense, the production must go down as a failure. It is nearing the end of its run and its message has barely penetrated mainstream media outside the arts pages. But if subject really is taboo, that is to be expected. This places the argument in a win-win situation: cause a storm, and it has provoked the debate. Go under the radar, and it proves the thesis – the press are afraid to touch these issues. But based on the fact that early performances featured a staged protest from an audience plant, and one rather suspects the producers wished for the former.

Can We Talk About This? runs to 28 March 2012. Contact [email protected]

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