“It’s like being in politics except you don’t have to lie,” Lloyd Newson tells me when I ask what the positives are of being Artistic Director of the acclaimed physical theatre company DV8. Ironically, for many Newson would epitomise their ideal MP although his latest show Can We Talk About This? would make for a controversial campaign.
Passionate, fiercely intelligent and intimidatingly politically aware, the Australian dancer set up DV8 in 1986 after leaving Extemporary Dance Theatre in search of something new, and 25 years later the company is 49 awards, 17 shows and four films richer. Their latest piece at the National Theatre is a characteristically controversial and hard-hitting verbatim piece that merges interviews with everyone from human rights campaigners to Anjem Choudary, the leader of the now banned extremist group Islam For UK, with contemporary movement that transforms from frenetic head bopping to cavalier acrobatics.
While atheist Newson may confide in me as we say our goodbyes that he’s sick of religion, it’s one of three principles that come up repeatedly when we meet at the company’s home in East London; Gay rights, women’s rights and religious rights. Newson’s last piece, To Be Straight With You, delivered horrifying statistics and facts about world views on homosexuality, while Can We Talk About This? delivers an equally straight talking punch asking why liberals are so frightened of challenging aspects of Islam that contravene human rights.
“Why is [it] the director general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, recently said that they treat Christianity much more robustly in their criticisms of it than they do with religions associated with ethnic minorities because they’re concerned of ‘violent reaction’?”, Newson asks, with clear frustration in his voice. “By not talking about it, do we actually incite people? Surely the greatest thing about democracy is the bedrock of its progress is based on discussion and hence why the piece is called Can We Talk About This?”
The key problem for Newson lies in Thompson’s words. While he describes how his partner can protest when the Pope visits the country without fear of being branded “Cathophobic” [sic] or being called “racist against the Irish”, Newson believes “that there is a heightened sense of sensitivity in terms of Islam.” And, as one performer, quoting former MP and campaigner against forced marriages Ann Cryer, says, when someone uses the word sensitive, it usually means “shut-up now please”.
Newson was inspired to challenge not only those with diametrically opposing views to his own – which he describes as coming from a “largely liberal, progressive, humanistic, human rights prospective” – but those of his peers who he found stayed largely silent on the subject for fear of causing offense. “I quoted a survey done in 2009 by the centre of Muslim studies, that when they asked 500 Britain Muslims whether they thought homosexuality was acceptable or not, 100% said it was unacceptable. When I quote that at dinner parties, the first thing people do is try and divert the subject; some would say ‘be careful that’s Islamophobic’. What is Islamophobic about saying ‘I hate aspects of a religion that condemn me and at worst want me dead?’ Seriously, what has happened to some of the liberal thinking in this country?”
Throughout the interview, the director repeated makes it clear that while he may not be religious himself, he is in no way calling for the demonisation of Muslims or any religion. Rather, that we extend our freedom of speech to include Islam: “As a gay man I might be offended by elements within the Koran. I’m not asking for the Koran to be banned, but there are many things in religion that offend me.” His ideal solution would be a secular country, believing that “religions will more likely be respected in a country that allows freedom of speech and that’s secular.”
There is plenty in the piece to support Newson’s argument. Through rigorous debate and equally as rigorous movement, the cast perform word for word accounts ranging from women who escaped from arranged marriages only to be hunted by their families, to more quietly sinister lapses in freedom of speech, including the little reported ban on discussing anything related to Sharia law in the United Nations Human Rights Council, meaning the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was awaiting a decision on whether she would be stoned for adultery in Iran, was forbidden.
I could fill this whole interview with facts and statistics that Newson can quote from memory. In fact, it’s hard to get a word in edgeways, which would be a problem were it not for the fact that his eloquence and passion leave every word loaded with an importance and emotion it would feel criminal to interrupt. But if the fact that this is the first interview I’ve ever done that was also recorded by the interviewee wasn’t clue enough, there is one moment in the show that explicitly reminds you what dangerous territory – justified or not – DV8 is treading. “Many of those people [we’ve interviewed] who fought for progressive and liberal issues, women’s rights, gay rights, religious rights, the right to leave your religion”, Newson tells me, “almost of all them have received death threats.”
While Newson won’t admit to personal courageousness, a fact I find far too modest, the company experienced first-hand the issues they were shedding light on while making the piece. The beauty of DV8 effectively being a permanent company of one means Newson can cast each show according to the productions requirements, seeking out those with experience of the subject matter. So the company for Can We Talk About This? includes three progressive Muslim dancers. When Newson attempted to find a mosque for the one practicing Muslim in the company to attend during rehearsals, he met a shocking dead end: “I wrote to someone very high up in one of the leading organisations asking if he could recommend a tolerant Imam and congregation that my Muslim could go to, because he was concerned about the radical conversations and attitudes he was experiencing in the East End. That leading individual could not recommend one mosque. That is quite worrying. Now he did say, to make sure all aspects of that conversation were covered, that if this individual said he was a dancer there would be a lot of ‘ridicule and division’.”
So, if DV8 believe that we should be talking about these issues, exactly how do they go about it? Firstly, Newson tells me, it is imperative to interview as many sides of the argument as you can and they have certainly fulfilled that brief with this show talking to mre than 40 people from Mohammed Ajeeb, the first Asian Lord Mayer in the UK, to Flemming Rose, the editor of Jyllands-Posten which published the infamous Muhammad cartoons. In the cases of more shockingly unbelievable facts, DV8 famously back it up on stage with videos and projections. With such a present issue, in order to keep up with the headlines it’s vital that, as Newson tells me, they are “constantly refining the piece. We’re very responsive to the issues.”
When Newson has such strong opinions on the subjects he works with, I wonder whether he has ever been tempted to contradict his own belief in the freedom of speech to censor others and contrive the show’s message, but he assures me he never has: “I have to say that we didn’t even in the last project when I was presenting religious preachers and individuals who wanted gay people dead. I had an absolute responsibility to present their arguments as coherently – and I laugh at that word – as possible.” Plus, when you’re dealing with fact rather than opinion the case is to a certain extent already made for you. “Part of the rough and tumble of freedom of speech is that we hear ideas that may offend us, we debate those ideas, the good ideas, hopefully, remain and the bad ones are discarded through vigorous, intelligent debate.”
But what of the rough and tumble of movement? DV8 started off as a straight dance company, introducing verbatim words in 1993 with Newson now admitting he could no longer do his job without words: “I realised after probably a decade of shoving and pushing dance around and trying not to use formulaic ways of moving or traditional dance styles, that I could push dance so far then there’s a certain point when, how do you say: ‘If I’m referring to a line from the bible from Leviticus that talks about mixing cross fibres and the fact that it’s unacceptable and a sin to wear clothing with mixed fibres, how do I say that in movement?’ It would take a very long time and I’d waste a lot of time and I’d miss the major point of what I wanted to say.
“So if I can’t say it with movement then I can use words. If I can’t say it with movement or words, maybe I’ll use a song, or maybe I’ll use projections, and that’s a big part of the reason this work has movement in it, text in it, projections in it and that for me also breaks the old pattern of doing verbatim work where you have a group of actors walking around as talking heads.” DV8’s work is not made for people who “just like somebody doing a triple pirouette” with Newson allowing himself a moment of flippancy to cheekily tell me, “there’s one step away between dance purists and religious fanatics as far as I’m concerned.”
So who would he like to see the show? It all returns to the dinner party, “What’s been great is some of those people who were friends of mine who have been concerned about my motives or overwhelmed by their own fears about being called a racist Islamophobic or guilty about Britain’s history of colonialism, slavery and imperialism, when they’ve come to see the piece have often come up to me and said ‘Ah now I understand and it has just been great and has actually inspired me to learn more.’”
Newson’s closing words as he gets up to go back to a job he calls “obsessional”, reiterates the show’s point for the final time: “We can’t accept you being abusive to different groups just because your religion says so. And if it means challenging a religion and it means reform within a religion then so be it. We have done with Christianity and therefore made a better society; we’re not burning women on the stake anymore. Thankfully.” Now that’s sure to get people talking.