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 The Theatreguide.London Review

To Be Straight With You
Lyttelton Theatre        Autumn 2008

The National Theatre plays host to the touring company DV8 for a short season of their latest work, applying their signature combination of acting, mime, dance and multimedia to a specific and puzzling social reality - the high degree and high passion of homophobia in racial and religious minority communities, those who, victims of prejudice themselves, might be expected to be less inclined to create outcasts from among themselves.

The piece is at its core Verbatim Theatre - that is, the company interviewed a lot of real people, both the homophobes and their victims, and repeat their words onstage. But unlike most other Verbatim companies, DV8 don't use real words to create the illusion of reality.

Rather, the whole thing is highly theatricalised, as the actors may dance, move, interact with projections or otherwise create stage pictures sometimes illuminating, sometimes at variance to what they are saying.

The evening begins with a consideration of Caribbean 'batty-man' songs, reggae music with overt kill-the-queers lyrics. At one point the hateful words are projected, floating in air, as the infectiously bouncy song is sung; at another, a gay club DJ defends playing these songs because gay men dancing to these lyrics co-opt and defang them.

Fundamentalist Christian preachers vie for our attention with fundamentalist Islamic preachers, gay activists, happily or unhappily gay men and women, and ordinary passers-by, their words all delivered by performers who may be dancing or rushing about the stage as they speak.

(The movement vocabulary, choreographed by director Lloyd Newson and the performers, is eclectically modern dance, and frequently involves standing still and just moving the arms or upper body.)

It has to be said that a little of this goes a long way, especially when the focus gradually centres on the Muslim community, leading to a degree of repetition, and even the most sympathetic members of the audience may begin to think 'O.K. We get the message' somewhat before the end of the 80-minute piece.

With much of the show performed in near-darkness (to allow for the projections) the general tone of gloom is - deliberately, I am sure oppressive.

It is not too surprising that the moments that get the strongest response from the audience are not the most shocking attacks or most pitiful accounts of victimisation, but those that show the most theatrical vitality, relevant or not.

At one point an actor appears to manipulate a projected globe, to illustrate the range of anti-homosexual laws around the world. At another, the cast perform a sort of seated Texas two-step that is so lively and inventive that what they are saying at the same time is likely not to register.

And the high point comes when performer Ankur Bahl tells a touching story in the voice of an Islamic teenager violently rejected by his family and finding both comfort and pride in the gay world, all while athletically and balletically skipping rope, so that the spontaneous round of applause - the only one of the evening - is clearly more for the performer than the text.

DV8's heart is clearly in the right place, and there is much to admire in their theatrical inventiveness. Whether message and medium have been effectively wedded together is another question, and I suspect that more will come away impressed by the company's technical prowess than moved by the stories they tell.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of To Be Straight With You - National Theatre 2008