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British theatre group asks: “Can We Talk About This?”

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Laura Bridgestock
WVoN co-editor 

Acceptance. Tolerance. Fairness. These are the qualities we in the west like to think we possess.

But in what context should they be embraced, and in what context rejected?

Theatre group DV8‘s latest performance piece, Can We Talk About This? is being hailed as a brave exploration of Islamic religious attitude meets western cultural thinking.

Described as “verbatim theatre”, the performance is a regurgitation of interviews and reports, set to dance. But this description does not do the work justice.

It is a wonderfully intelligent, artistic and creative delivery of personal stories from a wide range of individuals, mostly about their experience of Islam.

The performance portrays landmark incidents in the west, such as Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, the murder of Dutch film director, Theo van Gogh, and the Danish newspaper which published the Mohammed cartoons.

What strikes most is how the work cuts across the western concept of multiculturalism (the right of people to retain their indigenous culture), and how this relates to issues of tolerance and freedom of speech, challenging the audience to define what they really mean when they use these terms.

For example, one story is about a Muslim woman who applies for a divorce whilst living in the UK, on the grounds that her husband violently beat her.

The judge said he couldn’t grant the woman a divorce because Islam says it’s permissable to beat a woman. And he had to respect her religion.

As one performer quoted, “why are you making something that is disgusting, acceptable?”

Instead of condoning multiculturalism, the play points out that:

“You need to integrate people and beliefs; multiculturalism [at present] does not do this but it allows culture to exist separately.”

Another act recalled an interview with Ann Cryer, the former Member of Parliament, who campaigned against forced marriage.

“It was 1999 that the issue of forced marriage was first ever raised in Parliament. I don’t think we even called it forced marriage then [it was so unpopular]. I think we had to call it ‘community relations’.”

The character of Ann perches on a fellow dancer whilst she elegantly sips tea from a china cup, recounting her story.

She spoke about how she was called a racist for years, labeled as an Islamaphobe.

Other politicians, she said, would not speak out even though some had admitted it was going on in their own constituencies, because it was seen as too ‘sensitive’.

“If you are a few hundred votes out… then to bring up the issue of forced marriage is political suicide.”

Brilliantly choreographed, the performers’ movements are adeptly composed to the tension of their conversations; with dance serving as a wonderful metaphor for freedom.

The force of the play mirrors the relentlessness fervour of the religious extremists it discusses; from act to act it reels off victim after victim, murder after murder, during its entire 80 minutes.

Can We Talk About This? is showing at the National Theatre until 28th March 2012.

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