Do members of the progressive political class and artistic communities have a self-censorship problem when it comes to religion? Choreographer Lloyd Newson will be tackling that question in his upcoming Festival of Dangerous Ideas speech: what don’t we want to talk about in the arts?
“As someone from the Left, I often have discussions about religion at dinner parties, and generally there’s criticism towards religion when it oppresses women or gays, and also when it oppresses people from different religions,” he says.
But while his friends have no qualms in discussing the problems facing Christianity, Catholicism and orthodox Judaism in the 21st century, as soon as he raises similar critiques of Islam, Newson says the conversation quickly turns away from religion and towards dessert.
At the beginning of this year, Newson announced he was putting his celebrated and often controversial London-based dance company DV8 Physical Theatre on hold for an extended absence.
The Australian-born choreographer founded DV8 three decades ago in an attempt to inject socio-political issues into contemporary dance, and was in 2013 made an officer of the Order of the British Empire. But a recent experience with one of his works left him feeling disheartened, disillusioned and depressed.
His 2011 piece Can We Talk About This? was a forthright verbatim work of dance theatre which explored the relationship between Islam and freedom of speech. It had an acclaimed season at London’s National Theatre, but when Newson approached the BBC and Channel 4 about a filmed version, he found a surprising lack of enthusiasm.
“I was talking to a commissioning editor from the BBC, who had previously commissioned me for a film that won 17 international awards,” Newson says.
“So I had a reputation for being a decent filmmaker, she’d worked with me, and we were talking to one another back and forth. Then suddenly, she stopped emailing.”
Around the same time Mark Thompson, then director-general of the BBC, was asked in an interview whether broadcasters treated Islam differently to Christianity because of potential threats of violence from Islamic extremists.
Thompson responded: “Well, clearly it’s a very notable move in the game … ‘I complain in the strongest possible terms’, is different from ‘I complain in the strongest possible terms and I’m loading my AK47 as I write’.”
Newson says he could read between the lines.
“Everything in my work had to be verified and factual,” he says. “People expressed opinions, but there was nothing that was defamatory. If the major broadcasters are afraid to touch this area, what does it say about censorship?”
Can We Talk About This? was inspired by Newson’s experiences making an earlier work, To Be Straight With You, which explored the relationship between sexuality and Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Soon after Newson made that work, a survey was carried out with 500 British Muslims in which none of the respondents believed homosexuality was morally acceptable. He was gobsmacked.
While Newson has his own opinions on Islam — and the connected ideas and practices which he says are oppressive towards women, homosexuals and people of other faiths — Can We Talk About This? used only the words of 50 people he interviewed, set to movement. They had a variety of relationships with Islam, from devout followers through to those critical of the religion.
Amongst his many subjects, Newson spoke to Dr Usama Hasan, a British imam for 25 years, who received death threats for suggesting the Koran might be compatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution.
“If it was a straight documentary, I think [the broadcasters] would have done something else,” Newson says. “But the minute you turn it into an art piece, it takes on something more.”
Several progressive Muslim organisations even wrote to the BBC, imploring the broadcaster to commission the film.
Newson sees the Left’s failure to address the issues he dealt with in Can We Talk About This? as one of the major triggers for the rise of a handful of popular right-wing politicians in the UK, and Pauline Hanson’s return to prominence in Australia.
“The fear of my friends from the Left was that to discuss these situations might add fuel to the fire for the Right. But to not discuss it has actually done more damage and has allowed, I think, a lot of right-wing parties to thrive.”
Newson’s work has always engaged with tough subjects, but in recent years he’s become more concerned that the work in the dance world is mostly decorative. He says he needed time off from DV8 to regroup, and he’s now questioning his future as a dance maker.
But although he’s still disappointed that broadcasters shied away from his work, Newson says he’s very thankful that Can We Talk About This? was staged at the National Theatre in the first place.
“What was great for me was to be able to present it, but people didn’t want to go beyond the walls of what is traditionally seen as the white, middle class enclave, safe world of the theatre. That tells me there’s something very worrying in terms of the whole discussion and what the arts can discuss.”
Featured image: Can We Talk About This? Photo by Oliver Manzi