Review: Can We Talk About This?

Dancers' take on Islamism is a step too far


By John Nathan, March 15, 2012

Lyttelton, National Theatre, London SE1

DV8's physical brilliance cannot make up for lack of character and plot

DV8's physical brilliance cannot make up for lack of character and plot

Do you feel morally superior to the Taliban? The opening line of DV8's verbose dance show is not a particularly provocative question considering that the Taliban routinely go about the business of governance with medieval barbarity. Yet, even at their most strident, the liberal classes in this country are hesitant when it comes to declaring moral superiority over others. Can We Talk About This? argues that liberal reticence has gone too far, and that the tactic of using fear to shut people up has worked.

The show's structure focuses on a series of outrages - from intimidation to murder - carried out in the name of Islam. They include the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the deaths and protests over the Danish cartoons.

During 80 uninterrupted minutes, the words from over 40 interviews with proponents and opponents of extremist Islam, politicians and pundits, are recited by the cast of DV8 as they move and dance with astounding dexterity.

The words come from such diverse figures as Muslim protester Mizanur Rahman, who was sentenced for inciting violence, and author Martin Amis, who posed the question with which the show begins.

Interestingly, the audience response to that question helped illustrate the show's main argument. Only a fraction raised their hands when asked who felt morally superior to the Taliban. The timing probably did not help. The first night took place just after an American soldier murdered 16 Afghan civilians in their homes. Or perhaps the audience were distracted by the position of the performer as he speaks Amis's words. He leans against a wall with one leg slung impossibly over his head, like a lemur relaxing after downing a large scotch.

In fact, many of the moves executed by DV8 bring to mind other species. When one group moves across the stage in tight formation, heads nodding, it is hard not to think of a pack of meerkats.

The words of former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali are delivered by a nearly nude performer who draws black lines over her body, recalling the woman depicted in the film Ali made about Islam with Theo van Gogh. Van Gogh was subsequently murdered. In fact, the show's title is taken from what he is reported to have said as his killer plunged in the knife.

This is not the first time that, under director Lloyd Newson, DV8 has attempted to explode the silence that shrouds taboos. Its previous production, To Be Straight With You, highlighted the prejudice against gay communities around the world. In that show, a map of the Middle East showed Israel as an oasis of tolerance. And here, too, Jews and Muslims are placed in opposition, with one Muslim speaker citing the record of Jews winning Nobel Prizes as evidence that Muslims are not being outfought so much as out-thought.

But most disturbing of all are not the examples of Islamic extremism, but the appeasement of it by British authorities. The interview with David Henshaw, producer of the Channel 4 documentary Undercover Mosque revealed how, after viewing secretly filmed footage of Muslim speakers calling for the death of Jews, West Midlands Police apparently saw no grounds for prosecution.

But, as daring as all this is, the arguments have been around for a long time. So has verbatim theatre, a form which really has run its course. And whether choreography - even as marvellous as this - helps or hinders spoken argument is unclear.

I left wanting to talk about this, but more than anything, I left wanting to see the subject tackled by characters and plot. In other words, by a proper play.

Tel: 020 7452 3000

    Last updated: 12:45pm, March 15 2012