Writer: Ethel Cotton
Devisers: Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari
Reviewer: Geoff Mills
A Conversation, performed by one man, is a short piece of dark, experimental theatre that takes as its inspiration a 1927 work on the art of conversation.
Ethel Cotton’s didactic tome, heavily freighted with imperial prejudice, promises to teach us new ways to win poise, charm and personality. Nigel Barrett stands before us against a plain backdrop, attired in a beige suit, his only accoutrements a pile of old suitcases and a microphone. The lesson begins: “Have you ever stopped to think that your happiness depends on your ability to carry on an interesting and intelligent question?”
Cotton’s lessons take on the form of thought-provoking aphorisms. In order to develop your conversation skills, for example, we are told to “learn something about everything, and everything about something.” Barrett’s reading style is ponderous and ironic, and occasionally he stops to engage in conversation with members of the audience in a stilted attempt to put Cotton’s lessons into operation. At one point he breaks out the gin and tonic which is duly passed around the audience. He seems to drink liberally himself.
Between each ‘lesson’ the stage darkens and the space is filled with distorted music, and additional maxims from the book are delivered as a voice-over by co-collaborator Louise Mari. The effect is eerie and hypnotic, an atmosphere further enhanced when shafts of light track the apparently increasingly intoxicated Barrett across the stage.
The props, costume changes, shifts in style and tempo are designed to interrogate Cotton’s material and the sometimes absurd colonial assumptions which underlie them. Despite these experimental choices, however, the bulk of the performance is simply one man reading from a book, an activity which serves to distance the audience rather than draw them in. And if Barrett was relying on a dynamic interchange with the audience, this sadly depleted crowd of around 15 lacked the collective energy required to fuel a live, spontaneous piece of this nature.
A Conversation may well hold the power to electrify, but this was a low wattage evening.
Reviewed on 27 April 2017 | Image: Contributed