Thursday 15 March 2012

Liberal contortionism

Can We Talk About This?, National Theatre (Lyttelton), London

There is something fitting about a piece challenging censorship and the degraded state of free speech in the UK opening in the same week that a 19-year-old was arrested in Yorkshire for an ill-judged Facebook status update. As one commentator observed, the claim that Azhar Ahmed’s remarks about British soldiers dying in Afghanistan were ‘racially aggravated’ suited the logic of extremists such as Anjem Choudary – who view the conflict as part of an ethno-religious war by the West on Islam - rather than the West Yorkshire police. While DV8 have been praised for their bravery in staging a work which is critical of Islamic fundamentalism, in a climate where police officers feel entitled to lock up citizens for not making their points very well, perhaps reading from a script in a theatre is the safest place to be.

Can We Talk About This? is the new production by Lloyd Newson and DV8, who for 25 years have built an international reputation in marrying provocative subject matter to the more rarefied world of physical theatre and dance. The title comes from the words Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh is said to have shouted as he was being butchered in the street by a Dutch-born Muslim for being critical of Islam. For 80 minutes we are treated to a brief history of the tension between tolerance and identity across the West, from Ray Honeyford’s public hounding for criticising the divisiveness of state multiculturalism in Bradford schools during the 1980s through to the recent attempt by 56 Muslim-majority nations to have a ‘defamation of Islam’ resolution pass through the UN’s Human Rights Council, via the Rushdie affair and the Danish cartoons controversy.

It is, especially to many likely theatre-goers, familiar territory, and Newson isn’t likely to shake up too many apple carts in today’s ‘muscular liberal’ climate with the claim that the West has too often self-censored in combating Islamic extremism. As the piece takes the form of transcripts of interviews recited by dancers as they provide a physical expression of the words, there is hardly any new material in here: Martin Amis on feeling morally superior to the Taliban, Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the threats to her life made as a female ex-Muslim critical of Islam’s treatment of women, Shirley Williams and Christopher Hitchens locking horns over Rushdie’s knighthood…

Still, the purpose of Can We Talk About This? is to observe, rather than agitate: the dancers write the names of key characters and events on a wall at the back of the stage. Ironically, for a work which makes much of its bravery and iconoclasm, contributions serve to undercut its thesis: the only figures likely to be upset by the views expressed are either deranged Islamists or cowardly apologists, neither of whom make particularly sympathetic cases post 9/11, 7/7 or Brevik.

There can be no faulting the research that has gone into putting it together, and overall works as an efficient primer to the strange politics of multiculturalism. It is, however, somewhat more lacking in the tougher questions around the issue: if the culture of offence is problematic for making a handful of Islamist radicals untouchable, do we extend the principle of free speech to other walks of life? To homophobes, racists, misogynists and the like who don’t operate under religious justifications? As Kenan Malik – a contributor here - has noted recently, a warping conception of ‘tolerance’ in the West is still as likely to criminalise ‘Islamic dissent’ as much as less overtly dangerous, if unpleasant, opinions.

Yet, while Can We Talk About This? falls short as polemic or lecture, it is arguably much more successful artistically. The choreography is sublime, with the dancers contorting themselves and crawling over each other as they try to reconcile liberal ideals and rhetoric with today’s politics of pragmatism and technocratic managerialism, of which state-enforced multiculturalism was merely an early expression. While Williams comes across as the archetypal toadying liberal in criticising Rushdie’s knighthood her twitchy mannerisms serve as a neat visual gag, but a reminder that a complex debate – over the literary merits of Rushdie, over the rights and wrongs of cultural diplomacy, over the purpose of knighting writers at all – is suddenly reduced to a frustrating ‘which side are you on?’ question. While righteous liberals and angry Muslims encircle a martyred Honeyford, they do so nodding their heads and moving their arms as a reminder of the racist caricatures and the political struggle of immigration and the denial of equal rights which underpinned the debate at the time, and the unhappy compromise which multiculturalism served as.

In a particularly impressive sequence, former Labour MP Ann Cryer complains about the growing problems of fearful politicians confronting increasingly hostile and alienated constituents while her chair moves her around: a perfect illustration of a contemporary political class growing increasingly alienated from their public, clinging desperately to whatever principles or ideas can steady the ship.

Above all, it is this sense of perpetual motion and fluidity which sticks with you. As a metaphor for how we all operate under the politics of offence, forced into becoming increasingly careful of our words while our material reality travel in different directions - it’s difficult not to feel as though the obsession with young Muslim women lacking autonomy in forced marriages is something of a displacement activity for a denuded sense of agency across the West – DV8’s physical theatre offers a genuine insight. Can We Talk About This? may sound like a weak plea for dialogue and mutual understanding but, if Jonathan Turley is right in his warning that what comes next for free speech in the West ‘is not sharia, but silence’, it is at least a start.

Till 28 March 2012

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