Photographer: Oliver Manzi
Photo credit: http://www.guardian.co.uk/extra/2012/mar/05/extra-offer-can-we-talk-about-this
Cut and pasted from the National's website:
Can We Talk About This?
A co-production with DV8 Physical Theatre
A work conceived and directed by Lloyd Newson.
From the 1989 book burnings of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, to the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and the controversy of the ‘Muhammad cartoons’ in 2005, DV8’s new production examines how these events have reflected and influenced multicultural policies, freedom of speech and censorship. Can We Talk About This? is based on real voices and interviews, with leading figures from across the religious, political, cultural and social spectrum, including MPs, high profile authors and journalists. Can We Talk About This? makes its London premiere at the National, following a world tour.
Follow the link for the full details on the production, including the production gallery and the trailer:
I was lucky enough and very privileged to see this twice, once last Friday and once tonight (Wednesday 28 March), on its closing night.
I have been wanting to write about it for awhile; I am finally going to have a shot at it tonight!
Firstly, what I have to state very clearly upfront, is that this is ground-breaking innovative cutting-edge physical theatre. What the performers do on stage quite simply takes your breath away. The whole piece was exceptional from this point of view, but there were a couple of scenes that just blew my mind. The first was Joy Constantinides playing Ann Cryer, British ex-MP (Labour) who campaigned against forced marriage, supported by Kim-Jomi Fischer (image below).
Photo credit: http://www.bloomberg.com/photo/-can-we-talk-about-this-/162216.html
And the second was Kim-Jomi Fischer again, playing (I think!) Flemming Rose, the Editor of Jyllands-Posten, and the publisher of the Mohammed cartoons.
Photo credit: http://www.bloomberg.com/photo/-can-we-talk-about-this-/162214.html
In terms of physical theatre, I would say this production is unusual, exceptional and outstanding; as I said, the movement of the performers was mind-blowing.
Next, moving onto content. The focus of the piece is multiculturalism, freedom of speech, and Islam. The piece is ambitious in that it covers a lot of ground in its 85 minute running time:
- The Honeyford Affair, Bradford, 1985
- Salman Rushdie, 1989
- Theo Van Gogh and his film "Submission", 2004
- The Danish cartoons of Muhammed, 2005
- Geert Wilders, 2009
- Ann Cryer and the issue of forced marriages
- Philip Balmforth, West Yorkshire Police, and forced marriages and honour abuse
- The Channel 4 Dispatches Undercover Mosque programme
If you are not sure of the incidents and episodes that I am referring to, the best thing is to Google them.
The name of the piece itself - "Can we talk about this?" - is taken from what were supposedly Theo Van Gogh's last words as he lay dying on the street; although as is also clearly stated in the piece it is highly unlikely that he did say these words as the reality is that he would simply have been in too much pain and agony to think this, let alone articulate it.
As I said, I thought it was very ambitious for the piece to attempt to cover the ground that it did, given its running time, and I thought it did give a good overview of some of the key events. I must admit that I thought it more than slightly strange that the piece failed to mention or make reference to 9/11 and 7/7, the War on Terror and the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For me these are seminal events as far as freedom of speech and Islam are concerned yet the piece decided not to feature them (maybe the feeling is that those topics have been done to death, and the piece is looking at those episodes that have not received as much media and artistic attention; I simply don't know).
My major issue with the piece was that the tenor of the piece overall was anti-Muslim. This may seem a strange thing for a Christian to say but let me explain. I spent a lot of time during my Civil Service career working on faith issues, with a particular focus on engaging Muslim communities and working with them to fight radicalisation amongst their young people. I have also travelled extensively in the Middle East over a number of years. I feel that I know quite a lot about Islam, and am relatively informed about it. I have spent a lot of time working with a wide range of Muslims, building lasting relationships and working in partnership. Just as the vast majority of young people do not commit serious youth violence, the vast majority of Muslims are moderates who are perfectly happy to be in this country and abide by its laws.
I felt the piece was unbalanced. Moderate Islam was not allowed a voice in the piece and it was not represented on stage and yet, as I have said, the vast majority of Muslims are moderates. They deserve to have a voice and to be heard and represented on stage.
The general argument of the piece appeared to me to be that Islam was repressive, that it denied women their human rights and civil liberties, that it denied people freedom of speech and expression because people were too scared to speak out against it, and that if you dared to speak out against it or to criticise it you would be issued with a death threat (fatwa) and promptly assassinated. This means that the West are scared of talking about, much less challenging or criticising Islam, even when its views are in stark contrast and conflict to the principles of Western liberal democracies. I am not denying that this intimidation and killing has happened, it clearly has (just see the list I quoted above), but where it has happened it has made the headlines and the news because it is exceptional. To argue that this happens all the time is just not correct.
I also have a huge issue with Islam being portrayed in this way. The fact is that women are granted more rights in Islam, and these rights are enshrined in the Koran. Islam as written in the Koran is way more progressive than Christianity as written in the Bible in terms of women's rights. Forced marriages and honour abuse and honour killings are a huge issue but they are not to do with Islam; these issues are common across the South Asian community, be they Muslim, Sikh or Hindu. To say these issues are down to Islam is, again, just plain wrong.
The piece also strongly criticises multiculturalism (I am sick to the back teeth of people criticising multiculturalism when all it means is that diversity is respected and celebrated). The piece argued that multiculturalism allows immigrant communities to import backward notions and ideas into Britain, and the West are too tolerant and cautious and do not speak up against this as they are too scared of being accused of being racist. It makes a strong argument that British ideals, principles and laws should be paramount to Islamic or Shariah law, and that there should be one law for all. That is 100% correct. And everyone agrees on that; no one is arguing anything different (except a very small minority of extremists).
During the piece an audience member gets up and shouts that the work is "anti-Islamic shit" and throws objects onto the stage as a protest and then leaves the auditorium. Having seen the piece twice, I now know that this audience member is a plant. However, he was merely articulating what I myself felt about the piece, and I totally agreed with his succinct and powerful reaction to the piece. I wanted a more balanced piece, where the voice of moderate Islam was heard and represented on stage; that is only fair. Going forwards I am making a plea for the voice of moderate Islam to be included and incorporated into the piece.
Despite my problems with the piece, I fully support the National putting productions like this on its main stages. The piece has got people talking about the issues raised and about Islam and that is all to the good. The production has been sold out most days and as well as the National regulars it is bringing in new younger, more diverse audiences, and that is all to the good. I like the fact that people will come and see the piece and then, instead of just going home and forgetting about it, they are staying behind in the foyer afterwards to discuss the piece. That is exactly what theatre should do - make you think and start an informed conversation and discussion.
And finally, although I disagree with the tenor of the piece and with its dominant arguments, I will defend to my dying day the right of DV8 and the National to stage the piece, and I would support it reaching as wide and diverse an audience as possible. It gets people talking and starts a discussion and a debate; it also gets people thinking about the issues and tries to ensure they are better informed. This is a recent debate I have had with a friend of mine - I would never attempt to ban or censor anything; one of the cornerstones of British democracy is the right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and the minute you allow that to be infringed (even in a small and minor way) is the day you start down on a slippery slope to State censorship. No one wants that in Britain.
To conclude, I am recommending this, for the ground-breaking physical theatre contained in the piece, and because, although I do not agree with the dominant arguments of the piece, I think it is really important to get people thinking about these issues, and to equip them to have an informed conversation, discussion and debate, with their friends, family, colleagues and others on these issues. Highly recommended.