March 13, 2012 7:01 pm

Can We Talk About This?, National Theatre, London

This challenging piece of dance theatre explores the relationship between free speech and militant Islam, writes Sarah Hemming

Even the title of this brave, urgent piece of dance theatre contains several implied interpretations at once. Can we have a chat? Are we allowed to talk about this? Are we, as a dance company, able to talk about this? It’s challenging and subtle – apt for a piece that plunges headlong into one of the thorniest issues of our time: the clash between liberal secularism and religious fundamentalism.

Physical theatre company DV8, under director Lloyd Newson, explores the tense relationship between free speech and radical Islam. The show traces the history of those who have died or been threatened with death for their views: from the author Salman Rushdie to the filmmaker Theo van Gogh. It considers the case of Ray Honeyford, a Bradford headteacher, deemed racist for suggesting that multiculturalism was keeping cultures separate. It examines the difficulties faced by MP Ann Cryer when bringing up the issue of forced marriage. Throughout, the piece questions when multiculturalism becomes cultural relativism and what to do when tolerance ends up permitting intolerance. Who defines what is offensive and who should be allowed to say what?

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The style is as bold as the subject matter, with the words – all drawn verbatim from interviews or actuality – delivered by dancers on the move. Occasionally it is distracting; for the most part it is brilliant, the choreography expressing individuals’ difficulties in articulating problems as they tiptoe, shuffle or hop from foot to foot. The Danish newspaper editor threatened for printing cartoons of Mohammed stands on his head as he talks; Cryer, discussing forced marriages, is delicately lifted by another dancer, all the while balancing a cup of tea.

The piece takes on a huge, significant and real problem and does so in a style that is in itself restless and challenging. It is also beautiful and occasionally surprisingly droll and is careful to distinguish between moderate and extreme Muslim views. Tackling a subject of such complexity does produce problems, however. You feel the limits of the piece: the lack of context, for example, of recent wars in the Middle East that inform extremist views. So when a dancer asks of the audience “Do you feel morally superior to the Taliban?” and only 20 per cent raise their hands, it may be because they are considering the complexities of the question.

But this is a daring, serious piece of theatre that suggests that, in fact, we have to talk about this.

4 stars

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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