To Be Straight With You
William Crawley on the importance of artistic representation in the fight for human rights. Click Play Audio to listen to a panel discussion, chaired by Crawley, following a performance in the Grand Opera House
Stories about anti-gay attacks and other allegedly homophobic incidents are now being reported on an almost-weekly basis in the British and Irish press, and programmes like BBC Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence have chronicled the theological debate about same-sex relationships that has divided the worldwide anglican communion and other denominations too.
In the past few decades, we have seen a revolution in biblical scholarship, with some interpreters calling for a reversal of the church's traditional opposition to homosexuality, while others maintain a more conservative stance. The same kind of debate can be seen in non-christian religions too. But for gay and lesbian people of faith, the debate cuts much deeper than a hermeneutical argument - it can sometimes mean losing family and friends, facing isolation, abuse, and, in some cases, physical danger.
DV8 Physical Theatre's extraordinary new production, To Be Straight With You, examines the complex and sometimes disturbing relationship between religion and homosexuality. It does so, we might say, in the tradition of Studs Terkel's Working, a book-turned-Broadway-show which explored the American relationship with work using oral history as the method of exploration.
Lloyd Newson's production incorporates dance, drama, film and animation, and the result is an immensely powerful evening of theatre, which takes the audience on a theological and cultural journey.
Following Thursday evening's performance, I chaired a panel discussion examining the themes explored in the play. I was joined on the stage of the Grand Opera House by DV8's creator and director Lloyd Newson; the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell; Mike Davidson, director of Core-issues, a Christian ex-gay ministry; Mamoun Mobayed, president of the Northern Ireland Muslim Family Association, and oral historian Claire Hackett.
During the discussion (click Play Audio above to listen to the recording), you'll hear the voice of the distinguished film and theatre director Michel Lessac, creator of the internationally aclaimed theatre piece Truth in Translation, praising To Be Straight With You as a 'world class' production. That extremely high praise was echoed from just about every contributor to the discussion, including the panellists. Dawn Purvis MLA, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, also makes a contribution from the floor - to say that she had been moved to tears during the production.
The debate on stage concerned issues of theological representation. Mamoun Mobayed wished to challenge the play's portrayal of Islam, and Mike Davidson argued that 'reparative' counselling was not homophobic but a reasonable therapeutic reponse to people who are deeply unhappy about their own psychosexual identity. Peter Tatchell brought a global perspective to the conversation, making connections between religious communities and anti-gay discrimination in many countries around the world, and Claire Hackett brought a local perspective, which earthed the conversation in the political, cultural and religious space of Northern Ireland.
A key moment in our public discussion concerned the controversial comment from the MP and MLA Iris Robinson, first broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster. Her words are spoken in this production, not by an actor, but by herself. We hear the Radio Ulster news bulletin sting, followed by Linda Wray's summary of the story, then an excerpt from The Stephen Nolan Show. This section ends with Wray saying, 'And now the weather . . .', which provoked a roar of laughter from the Belfast audience (as it did in Dublin the week before).
One member of the audience wondered if that was an intentional effort to parody or trivialise Iris Robinson's comment. In reply, Llold Newson gave context to Mrs Robinson's words, explaining in some detail his direction of the scene, and speculating about why audiences laugh so much during that section of the play.
You will also hear a member of the audience wish, aloud, that the production contained 'more dance'. I've seen, and heard, the same comment in some local reviews of the production. I know those comments are intended as compliments ('more of that, please!'), but they also betray a lack of appreciation of the project of modern dance. Perhaps some people do not recognise dance unless the figures on the stage are dressed in leotards and performing multiple knee-bends, but every second of this production involves, incorporates and embodies 'dance'.
There is a place for dance in Christian theology too. The Greek term 'perichoresis', which literally means 'to dance around', has been used by theologians for centuries to describe the relationship between the persons of the Holy Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are said to permeate one another, to cleave together, to share the same life, to act as one in all that they do, while at the same time maintaining their distinctiveness.
This unity in diversity has become, for some theologians, a revolutionary model for social transformation, an image of the good society. The triune God is an image, not of individualism, but of community; and, if this is so, then Christians are called to embody that same openness to diversity within unity in their relationships with other people.
To Be Straight With You is a celebration of diversity, but it is also a prophetic witness to the struggle that continues within Christianity, and other faith traditions, to deal with that diversity. Lloyd Newson's production is not only a dance, it is an invitation to join the dance.