Can We Talk About This?

Martin Amis was cool but his audience was livid. Speaking at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, in London, the writer told his left leaning audience something they didn’t want to hear.

If liberals could not make a stand against a global wave of religious fervour that was ‘irrationalist, misogynist, homophobic, inquisitional, totalitarian, imperialist and genocidal”, that attitude represented a moral failure.

There were worse ‘ideas’ in the world than America, and one of them was a radical version of Islam that might have stepped out of a liberal’s nightmare.

When the audience grew even angrier, Amis tried to find common ground.

“Would all those in the hall who think they are morally superior to the Taliban please raise your hands,” he asked.

Only one third were confident enough to do so.

Last Thursday at the Sydney Opera House – three years after that meeting in London – a dancer in Lloyd Newson’s company, DV8, put the question again at the world premiere of Can We Talk About This?

A scattering of audience members raised their hands. The dancer checked the auditorium.

“Mmm, about 15 per cent”, he calculated, “not bad”.

In Amis’s view, and I think Newson’s, this timid response is a statement of principle. Many liberals, Amis said in a later interview, did not feel free to feel morally superior to anyone except Americans and Israelis.

As Newson himself writes in his program note to his new production: “Because of our desire to be tolerant and perhaps because of post colonial guilt and a fear of being labelled racist of Islamophobic, I feel there is a liberal blind spot”.

If this debate sounds like it could be a subject for Four Corners or BBC4, you’re right, but Newson has created a unique platform to explore the ideas, combining text (and there is plenty of that) with dance, to such an extent that the performers appear to be writing the words with their bodies.

The 10 dancers/actors (they are equally skilled at both) are all outstanding but two stand out in particular, Joy Constantinides and Ira Mandela Siobhan, whose flow of movement combined with their detailed gestures, is entrancing.

Constandinides, in her early 60s, and a founder member of Kim Brandstrup’s ARC Dance Company, dances/speaks a duet in which she portrays a perfectly proper Englishwoman making a speech while balancing a teacup on a saucer. She wears a coral coloured cardigan and expresses some of her words with balletic movements, a developpe here, a rond de jambe there, while miniscule yet eloquent hand movements personify her satisfaction with her words.

Her partner is her frame, her support, her furniture, her weight bearer, and her docile animal. At one point she places her saucer on his head, so that he resembles a subservient yet attentive faun. Masterful.

This calm duet comes as a relief in the onslaught of words as the performers raise the issues of freedom of speech, censorship and Islam, all based on interviews, thoughts and speeches of individuals such as Maryam Namazie, the director of ‘One Law for All,’ which fights for the rights of women, and against Sharia courts and Sharia law being introduced in Britain.

The repetitive and rapidly spoken nature of the text means you have to concentrate, as the performers are not always easy to hear. The set offers no distraction, as it is (deliberately) bland – a panel of mirrors, two TV sets, on which news footage is screened, two sound speakers, and beige walls on which the names and dates of various key events are scribbled.

But any wavering of attention is brief. Again and again, the power of the issues and ideas returns, in particular, close to the end when a performer sits at a desk and speaks with his only body movement being meticulous and impressive choreography for his agile hands. He is speaking the words of Roy Brown, a representative of the International Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Brown talked about challenging the United Nations’s resolution, ‘Combating Defamation of Religion’, which prevents discussing human rights’s abuses in relation to Sharia law.

At first, the text of Can We Talk About This? seems at odds with the dance language. The movement is initially comic, a hop from leg to leg; then heads – or upper bodies – moving like metronomes from side to side; or a man zipping up on his trousers as he flips into a head stand.

The choreography expands into broader, more dynamic movement, then retreats once more into restrained, robotic shuffling that emphasises chaotic debate or restricted thinking.

This whirlwind history lesson through bi-cultural culture is focused on the United Kingdom, home of the Australian-born Newson, so that it demands close attention and probably some knowledge of British multicultural politics such as the fear of Islamic extremists who recently papered London boroughs warning residents that they were entering a “Sharia-controlled zone” where gambling, alcohol and music was banned.

Similar issues, however, recently made news in Australia when The Australian Federation of Islamic Councils made a submission to the Federal Parliament’s Committee on Multicultural Affairs. The council argued for the right of Muslims to be able to marry, divorce and conduct financial transactions under the principles of Sharia law.

The work is a co-production of the Théâtre de la Ville and the Festival d’automne, Paris, Dansens Hus, Stockholm, and the National Theatre of Great Britain. The Australian premiere is the start of a long international tour that appears to be ending its run in London next year, by which time the performers will have spent more than a year rehearsing and touring this work.

The dancers clearly contributed a great deal. Newson has explained how they downloaded onto their iPods interviews and speeches made by politicians, victims, authors, preachers, filmmakers and Muslim leaders, among others, then listened as they began to improvise their movements.

Can We Talk About This? is verbatim dance theatre that follows in the path of DV8’s similarly constructed To Be Straight With You, with both works indicating Newton’s growing desire to tell a story through words as much as choreography.

In this new work, the relentless onslaught of the text, at times distracts the mind from the complexities of the dance. The movement, however, is never subservient to the words.

The short Australian season of Can We Talk About This? ended on August 28. The next city in the touring schedule is Hong Kong with performances from September 2 to 4.

Newson will not be photographed or filmed, hence the image here of the back of his head.

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Can We Talk About This?

Can We Talk About This? Ira Mandela Siobhan and Hannes Langolf, photo © Stephen Berkeley-White

Can We Talk About This?

Can We Talk About This? Hannes Langolf and Ira Mandela Siobhan, photo © Oliver Manzi

Can We Talk About This?

Can We Talk About This? Seeta Patel, photo © Oliver Manzi

Lloyd Newson by Polly Borland

Lloyd Newson by Polly Borland, photo taken 1999

Joy Constantinides

Joy Constantinides