To Be Straight With You

One of the Belfast Festival's most talked about productions

Tears have pricked my eyes a few times at the theatre, usually caused by moments of sorrow or pain, occasionally laughter, but never, until DV8's To Be Straight With You, by shame.

The acclaimed theatre company take us on a homophobic world tour (get your T-shirts on the way out), from Buju Banton-inspired batty boy batterings in the Caribbean, to gang murder in Iraq (as if they haven’t enough to worry about), to sadistic rape in Africa.

This is physical theatre as testimony. Every story, every word is true, taken from interviews with 85 people living in the UK. Mid way through, we come to Northern Ireland's contribution, and the honest-to-Godness tones of Iris Robinson. A recording is played of the infamous radio interview on the BBC's Stephen Nolan Show.

Stephen Nolan: Do you think for example that homosexuality is disgusting?

Iris Robinson: Absolutely.

Stephen Nolan: Do you think that homosexuality should be loathed?

Iris Robinson: Absolutely.

Stephen Nolan: Do you think it is right for people to have a physical disgust towards homosexuality?

Iris Robinson: Absolutely.

Stephen Nolan: Does it make you nauseous?

Iris Robinson: Yes.

Stephen Nolan: Do you think that it is something that is shamefully wicked and vile?

Iris Robinson: Yes, of course it is, it’s an abomination.

A herd of dancers wearing horses’ heads skitter around to a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah tune, before holding up cards spelling out LOVE SINNERS HATE SIN.

In case we forget, Iris Robinson isn’t a dance hall act trying to sell records, a crazy religious zealot (although, actually...), this is the wife of our first minister, voted MLA for Strangford, oh, and Bigot of the Year 2008 by Stonewall.

One of the successes of To Be Straight With You is showing up such attitudes as the thin edge of a thumping wedge of verbal and physical abuse.

I squirmed in my seat while watching, utterly ashamed to be associated with our wee country and the fact that this version of homophobia Norn Iron style is to be exported to Germany, America and Canada in the coming months.

Anyway, maybe that’s just my hang-up, much better to discuss an unsettling, magnificent production that fizzes with imagination.

Director/choreographer Lloyd Newson and the nine-strong cast create some spectacular visual vignettes, using a variety of media, from a good, old-fashioned blackboard to breath-taking holograms.
An actor spins a giant globe, quoting staggering statistics. A Nigerian pastor becomes a character in a live comic strip. ‘Boom Bye-Bye’ is played in its entirety with a plain English translation flashed up. ‘Shoot a gay man in the head.’

The performers’ movement and physicality are a joy to behold, at times so natural and vigorous you barely notice they are dancing. It’s hugely skillful and expressive, conveying and invoking a range of emotional states, from aggression to despair to euphoria.

A female rabbi spins round and round, a bit like a human dreidel, arms aloft, hinting at the shape of the Menorah. Impossible to describe adequately, incredibly beautiful in reality. An Asian lad from Hull, in a tank-top, completes an entire routine while skipping (he's actually a former world skipping champion), lending a surreal and funny edge to an ultimately tragic tale.

There are a few minor quibbles. Sometimes the narration gets lost amidst the dance music and occasionally an accent is hard to pick up, but then the performers do have to get to grips with multicultural Britain, including Jamaican patois, Indian, north of England, Cockney, and thanks of course to Iris, Norn Iron.

Naturally enough some scenes are more memorable than others. And the vignette structure tends to drift a little, with no real dramatic climax. But maybe that’s the point. These are stories, memories, bits of people’s lives, which don’t fit neatly into a plotline.

Depressingly, they offer little resolution either. There's a deluge of homophobia out there and it’s hard to see such Sodom and Gomorrah attitudes going away any time soon.

The production also highlights how homosexuality is all about invisibility / visibility. It happens under the radar in every society in the world. When it becomes visible, people can’t handle it. Before seeing To Be Straight With You, I wasn’t sure if I agreed with Peter Tatchell’s in-your-face protest methods but after being confronted with the visible reality of hatred and intolerance, all I can conclude is more power to his elbow.

The play's closing words resonate most of all. ‘It's between me and God now,’ a character says, before raising his hands to the sky. 'The only person who can judge is God.’

If only the homophobes would stick to that and live and let love.

David Lewis

To Be Straight With You will run as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's in the Grand Opera House, from October 21-23. Check out Culture Live! events listings for information on all Belfast Festival events.