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.
Posted in Theatre login to post comments
Submitted by peterwhittle on Fri, 2012-03-16 17:19.
The critics have been unjustly soft on Butley, Simon Gray's play which has just opened in a new production at the Duchess Theatre in London. Portraying a day in the life of a washed-up, drink-sodden academic as he rants and raves against the world, this semi-autobiographical piece is set in the early 70s and has Dominic West (badly miscast) in the title role.
Christopher Hart in the Sunday Times last week came nearest in his evaluation of the play - you can read his review below. I went to see for myself, and it struck me that it epitomises just about everything that is wrong with the theatre.
The characters don't so much speak as proclaim (loudly and incessantly). The themes, such as they are, are dealt with more skillfully (and far more efficiently) in some of the better TV drama around. The humour is lame, although as usual with live theatre, the audience tends to laugh heartily and indulgently to show they are on side.
Everything about the play feels artifical. Just because something happens in a theatre should not immediately accord it a different standard of validity and criticism.
Here's Hart's review:
'Butley is a washed-up English lecturer at the University of London, and Simon Gray’s play gives us a single day in his collapsing life. As Butley himself notes: “We’re preserving the unities.” But can the marginal, airless world of academia, with its constipated in-jokes about Milton, TS Eliot and classical unities, really fill a West End stage — even with Lindsay Posner directing and Dominic West in the title role?
The year is 1971, back in those happy days when Marxism and feminism had not yet quite succeeded in pushing out Milton and Wordsworth in favour of their infinitely superior selves. And on a single calamitous day in Butley’s life, he effectively suffers two divorces. First, his estranged wife, Anne (Amanda Drew), tells him she wants their estrangement made permanent. Humiliation is piled on humiliation when he learns that she is going to marry Tom, whom he has always considered “the most boring man in London”; and, worse still, that Tom has written a compelling account of his time in national service, soon to be published. Butley, it’s safe to guess, hasn’t published anything in a while.
Second, his housemate and fellow lecturer, Joseph, is moving out to live with his new boyfriend, Reg. Butley loathes Reg, whom he keeps calling “Ted” and mistaking for an interior designer. Reg is, in fact, an ambitious and sharp-suited publisher, with Tom among his authors. But then Butley loathes everyone, including himself. He even loathes his students, holding their essays at arm’s length, as if they pong, then dropping them straight into the bin, unread, and pretending to vomit on them violently.
Bored and frustrated, highly intelligent, but without the strength of character to contain or marshall that intelligence, Butley directs a constant stream of self-delighting malice and venomous eloquence at everyone around him. Eventually, quite naturally, they walk away from him, so he can then luxuriate in glorious self-pity and drunken, maudlin feelings of loneliness and abandonment. He is deeply and unremittingly obnoxious — almost as obnoxious as the barrier staff at Waterloo station, and that’s saying something.
West doesn’t even try to make him anything else, and he delivers his lacerating lines with energy and relish. Physically, however, he is too implausibly beefcake. He should be shambolic and scruffy and pot-bellied and wheezy from the endless cigarettes, slumped on the brink of exhaustion and despair. Instead, he bounces around like Tigger. His jacket is losing any shape it once had and succumbing to gravity at various points, and he wears one green sock and one blue, but his shoes are too well polished for a man who gets so drunk that he vomits on other people’s feet at parties.
West also overdoes his campery, flapping his hands, tossing his head and hitching up a shoulder for emphasis, like Simon Schama. He seems to be near to peeping out of the closet at times, though it seems to me that Butley was never in the closet in the first place. He isn’t homosexual as such, but is useless with women and intellectually much happier in the company of men. He’s a clever, grumpy, embittered but sometimes very funny man on autodestruct, a type well known in many a senior common room or London arts club. One problem here is that he’s not nearly funny enough, and the only possible justification for a Butley is that he should have us in tears of laughter, creating comic chaos around him and intoxicating us all with the wild possibilities of his drunken word-spinning and erudite anarchism. Only occasionally do his little sallies come up to standard, as when he compares sixth-form teachers to firemen called to quench flames that are already out, or, of his wife: “She told me if I was half a man I’d leave her. Then she discovered she was — and left.”
In the inevitable end, of course, everyone leaves him, tired of being punchbags, and he sits, sozzled and pathetic, at his desk, in dismal solitude — an end entirely predictable and, I would say, dramatically uninteresting. There is no inner struggle to be a different or a better person.
Butley and Joseph share a grim and gloomy study, with towering shelves of books to one side — books once passionately read and loved, but now something of a burden and a shadow, reminders of all that Butley has not achieved. Joseph, on the other hand, nicely played by Martin Hutson, may be “sly” and “pushy”, but, compared with Butley, you find his neatness and quiet ambition quite a tonic. The door at the back of Peter McKintosh’s set gives a chilly glimpse of a brick-lined passageway with one of those old cast-iron radiators, suggesting a corridor in Strangeways.
The actresses do their best to add some life to minor parts, with Drew still and steely as Anne Butley. And Paul McGann is memorably good as Reg Nuttall. There’s one blistering scene in which Butley launches his usual poisonous assault, and Reg listens to his wild flailing with such calm strength that it’s almost menacing. It is the only genuinely riveting part of the play, with our sympathies switching exhilaratingly from one to the other. One moment, Butley is sneering at Nuttall for being a “fairy, a queer, a poofter” and so on, but in the next we see that Nuttall really is something of a creep and a fake, and Butley, in his habitual bullying mode is speaking some truth as well.
Still, there is nothing here to suggest that Gray was anything other than a mildly amusing but distinctly minor talent, and that Pinter’s verdict on Butley — “a remarkable creation” — was wide of the mark. But then Harold’s judgment was wide of the mark on a number of issues, wasn’t it?'
Posted in Theatre login to post comments
Submitted by peterwhittle on Tue, 2011-06-14 08:15.
Quentin Letts, columnist and theatre critic for the Daily Mail, makes a very good point in his review of the latest production of Willy Russell's comedy Educating Rita, which has just opened at London's Trafalgar Studio. The 1980 play (subsequently made into a successful film, pictured) centres around the desire of a working class hairdresser to gain a proper education, and the efforts of an over-the-hill English professor to help her achieve her best.
'When Mr Russell wrote this admirable play it was not only credible that a working-class woman would be a rarity at university. It was also still the norm for the education sustem to demand high standards. A don barking at less privileged students and demanding that they stretch themselves? Well yes, it would have happened then. That, after all, is how you create a deserving, wider elite.
I'm afraid British universities, like the secondary schools feeding them, have become so paralysed by theories of equal access and social engineering that todays Ritas are unlikely to acquire the right properly to call themselves elite.
They will instead be patronised and given a module which will be easier and will represent 50% of their final mark..'
Changed circumstances have rendered Russell's play an anachronism in just thirty years. Lett's could have added that Rita's very desire to be among the best - her aspiration to better herself by acquiring knowledge and understanding - has itself become a thing of the past. The sight of it still moves us, but in our resolutely downwardly-aspirational era, it evokes more just a little nostalgia.
The NCF will be returning to this topic in October, when we will be holding a panel discussion on elitism and anti-elitism. Details will be posted here.
Posted in Theatre login to post comments
Submitted by peterwhittle on Tue, 2010-07-27 12:58.
It looks like the theatre is gearing up nicely for a General Election early next year.
The Royal Court in London's Sloane Square will be showing Posh, a new play by Laura Wades, from April 9th to May 22nd.
'In an oak-panelled room in Oxford, ten young bloods with cut-glass vowels and deep pockets are meeting, intent on restoring their right to rule,' goes the description. 'Members of an elite student dining society, the boys are bunkering down for a wild night of debauchery, decadence and bloody good wine. But this isn’t the last huzzah: they’re planning a takeover...Welcome to the Riot Club.'
Ms Wade, 32, has said that staging the play during an election campaign would "undoubtedly raise questions" about the Tories' ability to govern.
Daring new writing? This sounds almost charming in its quaintness. Who said that the theatre is running out of new ideas?
Posted in Theatre login to post comments
Submitted by peterwhittle on Thu, 2009-12-10 08:44.