Can We Talk About This? a new show from dance theatre group DV8 at the National Theatre on London's South Bank, has been widely reviewed today, and the Mail's Quentin Letts is absolutely right when he describes it as 'a significant moment in our politics: an attack on militant Islam at the National Theatre. Here, on the politically correct South Bank, is powerful criticism of the establishment which has wetly appeased hostile cultural forces.'
But why is it such a landmark? It is quite simple: there has never been a piece like it before. We usually know what we are going to get from the theatre - the same liberal-left handwringing, the usual modish causes, nothing which could be could genuinely courageous. Lloyd Newson, DV8's choreographer, is to be hugely congratulated for his sheer nerve in tackling an issue which concerns millions of people but which usually has a veil drawn over it in the arts world.
As a mixture of mime, dance and multi-media, it doesn't sound immediately like a crowd-pleaser. But don't be put off, for it is what the show says which is of such huge importance. Casting a critical light on the whole doctrine of multiculturalism, it traces the way in which, over the past twenty-five years, radical Islam has managed to curb free speech through fear, from the fatwa on Salman Rushdie through to the Danish cartoons affair and beyond; in fact the title refers to the last thing said by the Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh, before he died after being knifed in broad daylight by a Muslim extremist. Can we Talk About This? is ruthless in skewering liberal tolerance of the intolerable, so, needless to say, it has received lukewarm reviews from those citadels of self-hating liberalism, The Guardian and The Independent.
For years now artists, playwrights and directors have either been quietly hoping that the problem posed by Islamist extremism will go away, or, increasingly, actively censoring themselves. This has been happening at the very time when the arts should've been doing what they pride themselves on: speaking out.
Unfortunately the 'creative community' has real form here. The crisis which followed the publication of Rushdie's The Satanic Verses back in 1989 was a high water-mark in the assault on freedom of expression - years before Iraq, or 9/11, or 7/7. Then, the reaction of much of the establishment to scenes of demonstrations and book-burning was utterly craven. Lord Dacre, the historian, went so far to say that he 'would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring Mr. Rushdie's manners, were to waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.'
Extremists realized that our will to defend our values on these matters was weak, and so could be pushed further and further, which is exactly what has happened, both here and in Europe.
For far too long, the response of the cultural establishment to the question of Islamic fundementalism has been to duck it. When the Mohammed cartoons were not reproduced in the British media, Channel 4 debated whether or not freedom of speech was threatened, concluded it was not, and then with spectacular absurdity refrained from showing the cartoons for fear of causing offence. Before this, London's Barbican Centre cut pieces out of its production of Tamburlaine the Great for fear of offending Muslims. Threats were made to the Berlin Opera over a depiction of Mohammed in its production of Idomeneo. Filming of Monica Ali's bestseller Brick Lane was moved from London's East End after the film company gave in to protests from activists.
The BBC drama Spooks drew criticism from some Muslim groups in its first series for portraying radicalisation in a Mosque. It subsequently went out of its way to depict terrorist threats coming from any quarter other than Islam. And a plot-line in the hospital series Casualty, which involved an attack by Muslim extremists, was changed and animal rights activists were substituted.
In this context, it is surely clear why Can We We Talk About this? is so groundbreaking. By taking on both radical Islam and multiculturalism, it is the only genuinely relevant production in the theatre right now. It is the only show in town, and I urge you to see it.