It has been twenty-one years since DV8 created Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, a reaction to the UK’s Clause 28, which prohibited local councils from “promoting” homosexuality. Based on Dennis Nilsen, a serial killer who murdered and butchered fifteen gay men, it was the film version that catapulted the company into public consciousness: its first screening on the South Bank Show was preceded by tabloid fury about a “gay orgy on television” and helped to smash the programme’s audience records. Director Lloyd Newson’s subtext for Dead Dreams was how attitudes to homosexuality had pushed its practice underground. Fifteen gay men were unreported as missing, which would never have happened if the victims were, for example, women.
Little seems to have changed with To Be Straight With You, created last year. Although finger-pointing at countries such as Jamaica (where homosexuals face ten years hard labour) or some Islamic countries (where they face the death penalty), Newson primarily highlights the intolerance still found in Britain. He has gathered interviews with over two hundred gay people and uses some of these, verbatim, throughout the show. They invariably document physical abuse and intimidation, particularly in Britain’s Islamic and Afro-Caribbean communities and point to a common cause – religion. Within these groups, those who condemn homosexuality refer to carefully selected religious texts to justify their position.
It’s a difficult argument to make. Opponents can take an inflexible position and kill off any reasonable and reasoned argument by quoting the “word of God.” And that’s the brick-wall each of the interviewees has come up against. How can the word of God justify violence against fellow man?
The response usually takes the form of condemnation of the violence alongside the kind of spiteful intolerance that fuelled it in the first place. Take DUP politician Iris Robinson’s interview with Stephen Nolan on BBC Radio Ulster, which was replayed in To Be Straight With You. While condemning the homophobic attack on Newtownards resident Stephen Scott, Robinson (who subsequently became Stonewall’s 2008 UK Bigot of the Year) claimed that homosexuality was an “abomination” that made her “nauseous”.
Furthermore, she claimed to have “a very lovely psychiatrist who works with me in my offices and his Christian background is that he tries to help homosexuals turn away from what they are engaged in. I'm happy to put any homosexual in touch with this gentleman and I have met people who have turned around and become heterosexuals."
Faced with such entrenched positions, the 80-minute litany of demonology, from drunken street yob to politicians, can be overwhelming. Moments of lightness do peek out, like the carefree, rope-skipping Asian who shrugs off his physical attacks and is blissfully gay, but there is also a danger of overstatement. At times things get didactic and preachy, and the viewer is addressed in an Inconvenient Truth kind of way, complete with a blackboard and visual reinforcements. This is presumably a deliberate strategy by Newson, but he has shown far greater subtlety in the past with Dead Dreams or MSM, which was an explicit exploration of male sexuality and the practice of cottaging. Physicality has been downgraded and used as a volume-control on the words, so monologues are delivered to hip-hop moves, a Bharatanatyam dance or simple spinning with outstretched arms.
There’s slick use of projections throughout. Early on a performer seems to spin a globe of the world and separate continents while explaining the geography of homophobia, while later another enters a comic strip where he plays out being husband, father, and gay lover. The music soundtrack is also carefully selected and underpins the action with anonymous clubby beats or specific hate-filled tunes like Buju Banton’s encouragement to “Boom bye bye, in a batty bwoy head/Rude boy nah promote no nasty man, dem hafi dead.”
But, in the end it is the honesty and dignity of the testimonies that not only sustain the work, but win the argument. Faced with intolerance, the apposite response remains dignity, self-belief and love.
Michael Seaver is a musician and a writer on dance. He is Dance Critic with the Irish Times.