Yes, We Must Talk About This

A brave new play at the National challenges liberal received wisdom on multiculturalism

Anne McElvoy

Prepare to be amazed: a mainstream London theatre, the National, has staged a production which takes on multiculturalism and does not conclude that all ways of life are equally right and the bad stuff only happens because we are colonialists bent on nicking other people’s oil. Can We Talk About This? by Lloyd Newson’s inventive DV8 company, which mixes dance, verbatim texts and acting, speeds us through a series of interconnected stories, from the Rushdie affair to the Danish cartoons saga. Out of this emerge fierce arguments about the consequences of  tolerating different social cultural and political norms for different ethnic groups. 

By the time The Satanic Verses had resulted in book-burning in Bradford and fatwas in Islington, the perils of tolerating intolerance should have been clear to all. They were not. People found excuses for the Islamists because Sir Salman Rushdie is not always a likeable man, which was very far from being the point. This drama elegantly explores what has gone wrong, and challenges us to show some bravery and consistency in putting it right.

 What lifts Can We Talk About This? from a didactic play (and these are often boring, even if one approves of the lecture) is the use of video and texts from real-life encounters. These vogueish tools of contemporary drama are harnessed to eternal arguments about freedoms and the failure to stand up for them. Whether we feel morally superior to the Taliban is a question directed frontally at the audience, in the knowledge, of course, that only a minority of people will answer an unequivocal “Yes”.  

On we move through the harrowing stories of the past decades, from the persecution of Ayaan Hirsi Ali to the murder of the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh. Violence is portrayed through graphic movement and sharp contrasts of light and shadow, touchstones of Newson’s work which have brought him an international following as a stage innovator (this production arrives from Australia). Most touching, I thought, were the simple, graphic dance representations of fear and oppression, like a woman rebelling against a forced marriage through clenched postures of constraint and tiny gestures of resistance in her hands and body.

 If the work has an intellectual flaw, it is that it keeps telling us how afraid liberals are to speak out, whereas many more problems lie in a tendency to kid ourselves that extremism will go away if we are nice to the perpetrators: what one character calls a “pious paralysis”. But this is one of the most original and galvanising dramas the National has staged in a while. Good on them for taking it on. See it there soon, or when it tours to Salford in the spring.

Seeing as we are in full verbatim, intertextual mode this month, Going Dark is at the Young Vic, the latest work by Sound and Fury, another premier-cru small company, who brought us the brilliant Kursk. That re-created the mood and physical constriction in a submarine on a doomed mission to save Russian submariners abandoned by the arrogant stupidity of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. Going Dark brings us back to dry land, watching the heavens in the company of Max, a single dad and planetarium narrator played by John Mackay, who discovers that a rare eye condition is eating away at his sight.

Immersiveness is a bit of a faff for the audience. We shuffled into a space slightly smaller than my ideal clothes closet, stripped of bags and coats and bumping into each other in the dark. The first hour passed enjoyably, watching Max being sappily reasonable with his six-year-old (rendered by a voice on tape-recorder, saving the trouble of an actual child actor). It palls because Mackay, while an energetic and responsive presence, never makes us feel truly moved by his pitiful plight, as personal darkness descends. Going Dark wants to tell us a lot about the randomness of the universe and the wonderful accident of human life. Alas, it’s not much you haven’t heard before and the nifty planetarium projection on the ceiling did not leave this spectator star-struck. Hattie Naylor’s script has moments of luminosity, but no amount of immersion can atone for the simplistic material.

Unless you have been living in an outer galaxy this past month, you can hardly have failed to notice that Josie Rourke has made her debut as artistic director at the Donmar, a tall order in the wake of Michael Grandage, who turned it into a haunt of theatrical, film and TV stars, while maintaining a serious commitment to classical drama. Ms Rourke has cantered  off to a fine start with Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, with its likeable cast trying to con the yeoman stock of Shrewsbury into joining the army at the height of England’s successes against Napoleon.

Tobias Menzies as the romantically inclined Captain Plume is a study in strutting self-delusion.Mackenzie Crook (naff Gareth   in TV’s The Office) shines as the eponymous sort-of hero, bribing, fake-fortune-telling and marrying off seduced maidens after his officer boss has proved that he is no gentleman. Mark Gatiss adds to the burlesque a man who drops so many names he thinks that a conundrum is a character he once met in France. Farquhar’s play is verbally dazzling, but it relies a lot on stock puppets: country wenches, ladies with beauty spots and the like. Sheer plate-spinning dynamics help Ms  Rourke carry it off as well as giving us many belly-laughs for the ticket price.

 Some critics think that she has erred by starting her run with a comedy of English manners and military misadventure. That’s harsh: Farquhar deserves his place in the stage Restoration revival that is under way. Most of all, the Donmar needs energy and verve and The Recruiting Officer supplies it. I still get the giggles remembering Mr Crook’s hapless mouthing of despair to the audience when his machinations run out of control. Farquhar, a contemporary noted, was about “delight not malice”. There’s still a gap in the market for that.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens
Search