All entries for Friday 23 May 2008

May 23, 2008

To Be Straight With You @ Warwick Arts Centre

To Be Straight With You, the new show by DV8 Physical Theatre playing at Warwick Arts Centre this week, is one of the very few shows I've seen that has specifically dealt with an issue I feel very passionately about, in this case the relationship between homophobia and religion. As well as being a deeply evocative and sensitive issue that raises the most crucial questions relating to human rights regarding both sexual freedom and religious freedom, I've also always been frustrated at the hate and prejudice at both ends of the spectrum, and especially at the assumption that, because fundamentalist Christian groups preach hatred against homosexuality, that all other Christians are therefore also homophobic. Finally, having had several gay Christian friends while growing up, I've always had a lot of empathy for the struggle of people trying to reconcile natural sexual preference and strong religious beliefs while being told by those around them that those elements are mutually exclusive.

The pre-show talk with director Lloyd Newson further roused my interest. DV8's past work has been very focussed on body and movement, to the point of occasionally being described (erroneously) as a dance company. Newson's admission that, as he got older, he found text a more useful means of communication and was in this production using text as his primary medium therefore indicated at an interesting direction for the company. In addition, Newson's stories of the research conducted - interviews from which the text was constructed and the selection of events which had prompted this piece - were a fascinating introduction to the issues tackled. One of the best pre-show talks I've ever attended, absolutely absorbing.

Then, the show itself. I'll confess my slight disappointment first, in that the format - story after story, constructed from real interviews and delivered directly to the audience by actors speaking the voices - was pretty much exactly that used by several companies, notably Out of Joint with The Permanent Way and Talking to Terrorists (though less so with Testing the Echo). It's a very effective, possibly the most effective, way of delivering this kind of material, but took away somewhat from the uniqueness of DV8's work. However, this disappointment was only slight, as the combination of format with exquisitely choreographed movement elevated the production far beyond OOJ's work and created a very original piece.

Rather than creating a through narrative, the production was content to move rapidly from place to place, story to story. A fluidly moving set took us into a DJ booth, a city street, a mosque, a house, an office. While everyone interviewed was British-based, the outlook was truly global with many of the characters immigrants fleeing persecution in other countries. Against these varied locations were positioned more abstract moments - a man standing behind a projected globe, spinning it around as he showed the places where gay people faced death or imprisonment, a man wandering through a projected comic-strip, a pair of women whose heads were only visible at the start, but then had the rest of their bodies sketched in electronically. The projections weren't just technical wizardry for its own sake, though, but contributed to an overall aesthetic that sketched and collated the ideas and viewpoints as they were raised, most explicity demonstrated in the huge blackboard that regularly reappeared on which were drawn diagrams, insults and arrows to physically illustrate the relationships being discussed.

The movement, far more subtle than in previous productions, was designed to add a complementary level to the words spoken by the characters. Sometimes this was as simple as a rocking from side to side when a character was displaying ambivalence. In one beautiful scene, where a gay man expressed his love of dancing, he and a silent shadow danced in reflection of and around each other. One woman simply span on the spot for a breathtakingly long time as a voiceover spoke of confusion and fear. Most powerfully, the story of a teenage boy who came out to his Muslim family and was later stabbed by his father was told by a man who skipped throughout, speeding up and slowing down as his mood and vocal pace fluctuated.

Commendably, the company had assembled a huge range of viewpoints, from fundamentalists to human rights activists, immigrants to clerics. Most effective were the many stories of gay individuals dealing with their families, their religious beliefs and the violence they had encountered on account of their sexuality. While many of the extreme views and global statistics were voiced at the start, the production gradually moved on to the simple stories of individuals learning to cope, and the final story was particularly moving. A young man, religious and gay, who had no stories of violence or persecution but simply wanted to fall in love and had adopted his own rules and lifestyle which he just wanted to share with someone. After the violent politics and graphic horrors of earlier stories, to finish on such a calm and sad note was hugely effective.

As always with this kind of show, it was the research and the stories that stood out, with the movement and visual aesthetic functioning primarily to get these stories across. Yet the design and choreography was sublime, beautiful without being showy, and the skills of all the performers were astonishing. Particularly in the more graphic moments, such as the couple of staged physical assaults on homosexuals, the timing of the movement to create a dance piece that still looked and felt like a genuine attack demonstrated their technical ability, while the emotional expressiveness came out in moments such as the human rights campaigner who was turned around and upside down by his boyfriend, before the two simply held hands.

A fascinating and beautiful show, that raised important questions and was terrifyingly informative. Key to the whole piece was the belief that, while on the surface tolerance and rights for homosexuals exist in this country, in practice these are still dangerous and volatile times. Shocking, but educational.

A final thought which fascinated me, this time regarding the audience. Throughout the production, offensive and provocative terms for homosexuals were used, particularly in the music of homophobic reggae where names such as 'Batty Boy' were frequently heard with no noticable reaction from the audience. Yet at one point a cast member used the word 'nigger', at which there was an audible gasp. It fascinated me that, despite the subject matter and awareness raised in both the pre-show talk and show itself, the audience were able to stand incredibly offensive words for homosexuals but that a racially offensive word seemed to cross a line. Perhaps this made its own individual point about where we stand in relation to the two issues?

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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