Britain's National Theatre is showing "Can We Talk About This?", a verbatim dance work from the physical theatre company DV8, which addresses questions of free speech, multiculturalism and Islam.
The show begins in 1985 and ends in the present day by way of a "greatest hits" of events where Islam and free speech became issues in the UK and Europe.
The Satanic Verses affair, the murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh, the publication of the Danish cartoons, "honour"-based killings, forced marriages and sharia law are among the events and subjects tackled in a series of episodes where dancers quote from specially commissioned interviews and existing archive while dancing, often in a jerky, angular manner.
During the course of the 80-minute show the cast of 10 dancers portray 25 characters, including the late Christopher Hitchens, Shirley Williams, ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali who wrote Infidel, historian Timothy Garton Ash and author Martin Amis. It is Amis's words that begin the show when a lone dancer stands in the centre of the stage and asks the audience: "Do you feel morally superior to the Taliban?"
Lloyd Newson the Australian-born creator of "Can We Talk About This?" said he noticed in conversations with friends he was struck by what he refers to as a "liberal blind spot" in respect to Islam.
At dinner parties, he says, people "would get very uncomfortable. They would either try to divert from the subject matter or doubt my intentions - the response was to say that you shouldn't be Islamophobic or to say it's a complicated situation. They didn't want to talk about it."
This reluctance to criticise was not, Newson noted, extended to Catholics or Jews, and this prompted him to begin exploring the issue. In preparation for the new show he spoke to around 40 Muslims and non-Muslims to ask what they felt they could speak about and whether they felt they were being censored.
Newson says he believes the show is nuanced and shows both sides of the argument.
Newson says that liberals who refuse to speak out are "under the banner of being a good liberal and respecting cultural relativism â¦ doing something more akin to a mild form of racism. I believe that state multiculturalism has failed many Muslims in Britain - it has not afforded them the same rights as non-Muslim British people."
State multiculturalism has, Newson argues, inadvertently led to a cultural relativism, which leads to a toleration of intolerant positions on women's rights, gay rights and other liberal progressive issues. This intolerance is not confronted because, he says, there is an unwillingness to discuss it due to a fear of causing offence. "We can talk about it on a Daily Mail level," he says, "but on a larger level people are nervous about talking about it."
However, critics -- including the Guardian's Sarfraz Manzoor -- claim the work is advancing a particular point of view: that free speech is being threatened by some aspects of Islam and that state multiculturalism has a lot to answer for.
"(The play's) linear structure and the lack of light and shade seems more akin to a polemical lecture than a piece of theatre," Manzoor says. "It was hard to know what the dancing added to the speech and, while Newson put forward a powerful case, it did not always feel balanced. He cited, for example, a poll that suggested Muslim hostility to homosexuality; but what about the later Demos poll which suggested that almost half of Muslims are proud of Britain's stance on gay rights?"
Another critic, Naima Khan, though praising the production's ingenuity, laments its "homogenization" of the people it represents. "We learn little about the people whose words have caused such controversy and worse, they are all held in the same bracket which grossly simplifies the points they made."
Jake Orr says: "It doesn't come across as a one-sided story, but it does feel slightly biased towards the British ideal." However, he also argues in the production's defence, saying. "It packs tens of interviews and opinions into 80 minutes, and at times this is overwhelming. It makes it obvious that there is no answer to the questions of who is right, and how far freedom of speech can or should go. It presents the complexity and tells its audience to figure it out themselves, but at least understand that these very things do exist and should not be ignored. It's a well intended piece, but perhaps not conceived in the best of ways."
Sarfraz Manzoor, "Dancing around Islam: DV8's Can We Talk About This?" The Guardian UK March 13, 2012
Naima Khan, "DV8 Can We Talk About This? at National Theatreâ" Spoonfed March 13, 2012
Jake Orr, "Review: Can We Talk About This?" A Younger Theatre March 13, 2012
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today