November 13, 2009
San Francisco is probably the most sexually tolerant city in the world. There are few places where people can walk around in nothing but socks and sneakers with bells dangling from their privates without getting arrested and San Francisco is one of them. Ironically, the fact that the city is so gay-friendly makes the latest work by the luminescent British physical theatre company DV8 so disturbing: It's eye-opening in this lovely, uber-liberal, open-minded bubble we live in to be reminded of just how much anti-gay sentiment still persists in the world.
Based on verbatim interviews and vox pops with people in the UK about their feelings towards homosexuality, To Be Straight With You delves into the personal experiences of gays and lesbians in many different communities and the hatred that society continues to have for what it considers to be a deviant "lifestyle" choice.
The production, directed by Lloyd Newson, begins straightforwardly enough, with little physical movement and a catalogue of verbal abuse culled from interviews directed against gays and lesbians. As the 80-minute-long production moves along, the physical side of the performance builds and builds through short episodic scenes that push a wide variety of movement vocabularies to their limits. In one of the most memorable scenes, a gay teenager skips rope with the grace of a hummingbird while describing the difficulty of coming out to his parents. The contrast between the performer's sustained bout of "extreme skipping" while talking with the ease of someone at rest is virtuostic and dazzling. The mad caricature of the idea of childhood created by the skipping is made sober by the down-to-earth talking.
Meanwhile, in another scene, an Indian muslim attempts to reconcile his religion and marriage with the fact that he has quiet relationships with men on the side. The performer's monologue is set to an amazing duet between two male performers featuring movement that pushes classical Indian dance technique to the extreme. In this scene, the monologist utters a line which to my mind captures the core tension at the heart of the work: "It is part of my nature but it is unnatural." This duality is underscored by the friction between the flowing, organic choreography and text of To Be Straight With You and its more freakish,violent and cartoonish side.
The visual and aural elements of the show, which include some very snazzy effects such as a transparent projected globe which one performer manipulates in a lecture-style to demonstrate the vast swathes of the globe where being gay will get you a prison sentence or worse, further arrest the senses. But DV8's presence in San Francisco for the first time in 12 years is electrifying not just from an aesthetic perspective. We might be living in 21st century San Francisco, but attitudes towards sexual orientation are still Medieval in many parts of the world. And I'm pretty certain that just below the surface even of this gay-friendly town, lurks intolerance and hatred.