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“I’m quite hard to offend”

Interview: Lloyd Newson. The award-winning founder of London-based DV8 Physical Theatre raises a few uncomfortable questions. The title of his new work says it all: Can We Talk About This? It debuts Oct 27.

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Photo by Oliver Manzi

The title says it all. Can We Talk About This? is Lloyd Newson’s attempt to dissect one of the last taboos of our liberal, ‘freethinking’ western world: the limits of multiculturalism. And it does so through perhaps one of the most unexpected mediums: physical theatre.

From Salman Rushdie’s fatwa to the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and the controversy of the Danish Muhammad cartoons, the award-winning Australian founder of London-based DV8 Physical Theatre boldly raises a few uncomfortable questions at this year’s Spielzeit’europa.

Is Can We Talk About This? a criticism of multiculturalism and particularly the integration, or lack thereof, of Islamic cultures in Britain?

It’s more to do with freedom of speech relating to the topic of multiculturalism, and that is not the same experience as living in a diverse multiracial society, which I support, but rather actually looking into multicultural policy. “Can we talk about this?” is what Theo van Gogh was quoted as saying as he was being murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri.

For the piece, you interviewed about 50 people. Did any of their opinions offend you personally?

I’m quite hard to offend. I do believe that what makes democracy valuable is that we do have freedom of speech. The issue about what is offensive is a subjective one. I believe in freedom of speech, within the constraints of the law, that you don’t say false things about people.

How have audiences reacted to this delicate subject matter so far?

What comes to mind is a sentence from one of our interviewees, who said that there is nothing of importance that will not offend somebody somewhere. How can we talk about this important issue without people being offended? The only thing that is not offensive is pure dance. Actually that’s a lie, because I find that I’m quite often offended by that!

Do you think that using art as a medium makes it easier for people to deal with such controversial topics?

I’ve certainly found that at many dinner parties, a lot of predominately white middle-class people would often clam up or get rather irritated or go into denial when I raised the issue. Does an art form make it more palatable? Yes, because people come along to see the piece and they’re sort of stuck there with the theatre etiquette to sit and watch, unlike the dinner parties, where they tried to silence me quite quickly. Here I can make a full argument. How often at a dinner party would you be prepared to listen to a guest speak for an hour and twenty minutes on a particular issue close to their heart?

Do you want to solve these issues through your piece?

No one is going to solve this problem simply, but some of the white liberals in Britain have ironically failed to support the progressive Muslims, because they have adhered to multiculturalism and cultural relativism. I refuse to sit by as we accept a culturally relative argument if it oppresses women.

If we all talk about it, if we all raise these issues, if we all challenge the fear that so many white liberals hold, then we might actually be supporting progressive Muslims, and they are the voices that need our support.

You studied psychology and social work before you became a dancer yourself. How does this background influence your work with DV8?

I first worked with a mainstream dance company, and that was fine for about four or five years, but after that, I thought that the intellectual rigour of the work was lacking. We were doing pretty shapes and fairly vacuous work. I was always intrigued that critics would often overly read the work: it became a bit like Rorschach inkblot tests, because they would just project what they wanted onto it.

I felt very disillusioned and decided that I wanted to form my own company and try to make more complex, socially, politically and psychologically relevant works. In order to do that, I had to question the basic aesthetics of dance and actually go back to what most people understand, and what I think is far more nuanced, which is body language: the thing that we all understand one way or another, consciously or subconsciously. And from that, extend and develop the vocabulary of movement.

Why do you think you have progressed toward more verbatim theatre and away from traditional dance?

The very fact that you can be imprisoned and receive death threats for calling a teddy bear Mohammad proves the power of a word. What dance movement can you do that could get the same reaction? Not many.

Are there subjects that art should not address?

There are all sorts of things that politicians refuse to address because of cultural sensitivity or fear, and ultimately, self-interest. What is great about being an artist is that I can say what I need to say; I don’t have to follow my leader; I don’t need to get votes.

Can We Talk About This?, Oct 27-29, 20:00 | Haus der Berliner Festspiele