Before John, the latest work from multi-award-winning DV8 Physical Theatre, opens at The Lowry this month, artistic director Lloyd Newson warns that “if you are looking for something saccharin and sweet, or easy viewing, this is not the piece to come and see. If you want something hard-line, controversial, proactive, truthful, then they are probably the words most associated with my company.”
The show, based on Newson’s frank interviews about love and sex with more than 50 men, both straight and gay but all promised anonymity, is the latest in a ‘verbatim’ series of shows from the DV8 who last visited The Lowry with Can We Talk About This?, Newson’s controversial piece on Islamic fundamentalism. The Lowry itself has warned that the show is most suitable for over-sixteens as it “contains adult themes, strong language and nudity”.
What emerged from Newson’s interviews was a work that authentically depicts real-life stories. It combines movement and spoken word in a narrative where years of crime, drug use and struggling to survive lead John on a search in which his life converges with others in an unexpected place, unknown by most.
“This work, like Can We Talk About This? asks some of the questions that need to be asked,” Newson points out. “I think a lot of people avoid the hard-edge in theatre and yet that to me is why I do the work I do. A lot of people will find very nice metaphors or whatever without ever going to the heart of the matter, whereas I have probably a fatal attraction towards trying to talk about the things other people don’t want to speak about. That means we get quite a dedicated audience but we also get other people who I know absolutely won’t want to come and see what we do, because it is too confronting.”
John opened Liverpool’s Homotopia art and cultural festival last year, before playing, to some controversy, at the National Theatre in November.
“This is the third consecutive verbatim work I’ve done and because the last two were about religion we had to be extremely careful on all sorts of levels,” he acknowledges. “How exactly does a white, gay, middle-aged atheist do a piece about religion? What he does is he interviews a lot of people who’ve had a lot of first-hand, direct experience of religion, whether they’ve set their lives up around it or to oppose it, whether they’re moderate or extremist. That imposes an authenticity but in doing that you often have to get a very broad cross-section of opinions. Because the subject matter is sensitive, it’s difficult and in many ways it’s like a documentary expressed in text and movement.
“With John, because it’s less of a socio-political issue, I want to focus this time on more of a narrative rather than just present different perspectives on an issue. I do start off with a blank sheet but knew I wanted to talk to men about intimacy. Invariably, sex emerges when you talk about men and intimacy,” he chuckles.
“Then John walked into our office and his story was so extraordinary that it was immediately clear the work would revolve around him. Nevertheless, there are five major characters in this piece and their equally interesting stories are threaded through a common location which happens to be a gay sauna, although not all the characters are necessarily gay.”
Interestingly, Newson tries hard to avoid the description ‘dance’ for DV8’s work.
“I prefer the word movement or physical theatre to dance, because dance has so many negative connotations, at least to me,” he says.
Yet, surely, audiences for shows branded as ‘dance’ have never been higher?
“There are certainly many shows that incorporate dance, but they are often plays or musicals based around text, where the lyrics are the important thing. There are no long-running shows which are purely dance because often we have no idea what they’re saying. Most people want to try and engage in subject matter yet the aesthetic and the actual form often over-rides and impedes narrative and story-telling.
“The reason Strictly works well on TV is because it’s a format that, just like X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent, is based on competition, on back-stories, or on celebrities. So there are a whole lot of other factors playing in, but if you just had to watch couples waltzing around for an hour, most people would not engage with that.
“Most contemporary dance,” he contends, “has trouble getting TV time because, frankly, it’s mostly not about anything, even if some contemporary choreographers would pretend otherwise.”
So then, why should people want to see John?
“I’d encourage you to see it if you’re tired of dance because you feel you don’t understand it and you feel that it has nothing to do with your life, which is how I often feel. If you’re interested in seeing a play that’s not just about talking heads. The interesting thing about DV8 is we’re a hybrid company. We push naturalism so you don’t get drawing room dramas but we don’t push it to the extent most dance does, where the movement becomes so abstract that you’ve got no idea what it’s about. We’re about trying to find movement that is imbued with body language and meaning, which I think most people are quite sophisticated in understanding, as they do every time they walk down the street, after all.”
He adds: “DV8 will be in its 30th year in 2016 and it hasn’t got easier in that time, although we’re obviously very pleased to have been asked to work with the National Theatre and the more mainstream acceptance that implies.
“I have been asked many times to do more commercial work, and work with ‘famous people’. But the compromise that’s required in terms of having to diminish the political content in favour of sugary fluff has meant that I’ve always pulled back from those offers. I do have a commitment not to do work that panders to commercialism and that will always keep us, I hope in a positive way, subversive.
“For our anniversary year, for instance, I’m quite interested in a piece about death, addressing euthanasia and dying well…”
By Kevin Bourke
Where: The Lowry, Salford; The Grand Theatre, Blackpool
When: February 26-27, 2015 at The Lowry; March 12-13, 2015 at The Grand Theatre
More info: http://www.thelowry.com/event/john-dv8; http://www.blackpoolgrand.co.uk/shows/performance/dv8-john