How do we speak to one another? Both parts of the eighth double bill in The Yard’s Generation Game festival are concerned in some way with communication – with how to converse with other people in the world and with an audience. Embracing theatre as collective presence, we are addressed, involved, brought into the conversation. The ways in which we relate to one another in the space of the theatre are repeatedly foregrounded.
In Gameshow’s new version of Agatha, Marguerite Duras’ haunting play becomes the site for an exploration of memory, communication and the workings of theatre. In the play proper, as it were, a brother and a sister – HE and SHE – meet for one last time in the empty house of their adolescence. The sister is about to leave, suitcase packed beside her, and as they sit among the wreckage of their past they reminisce. Wading through memories while the sea moans outside, they remember their childhood, their family, one particular summer that marked them both irrevocably. Recollections are broken and scattered.
Around these fragments of nostalgic and often fraught conversation, Gameshow have built a frame that not so much contains the theatrical event as shakes up its cogs and lays them out for inspection. Each scene is broken down into actions and intentions, sharing what might be notes in a script, while performers Jennifer Pick and Tom Greaves are eager to remind us that they are just that – performers. They repeatedly introduce themselves to us (“I’m Jenny”; “I’m Tom”) and intersperse the scenes with a muddle of their own memories. A game of Jenga is played in the breaks, recalling the games of childhood, and a series of seemingly unconnected stories are told.
It’s not entirely clear, however, what the structure of the piece achieves. The implicit comments on memory are still emerging, not quite fully formed at this stage but tentatively intriguing. The self-awareness of the show as an acknowledged product of theatrical construction, though, is as yet undirected. There is a tension between the “scenes” and the performance event surrounding them that might be productively played with, but the tone remains uncertain, while the slightly disconnected style of the scenes themselves can act as a barrier to engagement – a barrier that might well be entirely intentional, but at this point feels a little confused.
In Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari’s A Conversation, the terms of the engagement are more explicit; the very title announces that this is going to be about talking. Using excerpts from The Ethel Cotton Course in Conversation, a fascinating period piece published in 1927, this solo performance asks questions about how we interact with one another and what role conversation plays in our lives. Overturning the optimistic ideas of human engagement that often sit at the heart of what we hope for when we speak of conversation, Ethel Cotton’s instructions reduce that dialogue to little more than small talk – a surface dance of pleasantry, with little concern for depth.
The majority of the performance springs directly from Cotton’s book, from which Barrett reads, while other passages are played as dispassionate voiceovers during the show’s numerous blackouts. Around these snippets of Cotton’s often questionable advice, Barrett talks directly to the audience, extending the lessons into practice. He asks questions, attempts to strike up a stilted dialogue, and invites us to share our stories.
There are twin critiques at play in Barrett and Mari’s engaging rendering of this curious text. The first is a skewering of the colonial universalism inherent in Cotton’s lessons, which make frequent references to the backdrop of the British Empire. Brilliantly performed by Barrett, who is capable of raising a laugh with the slightest movement, the book’s blithe assertions of universal experience take on a ridiculous character, particularly in contrast with the visible differences enacted by Barrett’s changes between scenes. This is a series of instructions aimed at “people like us”, based on careless shared assumptions that are unveiled with both humour and barbs.
The other goes right to the core of how we interact with one another. Asking questions like “have you ever stopped to think that your happiness depends upon your ability to carry on an interesting and intelligent conversation?”, the piece positions hilarious and acute observations about our social conventions through the material of the text. What all the talk of parties and the cultivation of engaging conversation highlights is a society in which individuals are accepted and rejected not based on the reality of their character, but according to their superficial ability to amuse.
Beneath the humour and the critique, there is also something about theatre as an encounter. Here, that encounter comes under inspection and, by extension, criticism. It’s a little strange, after all, that we all go to the theatre to spend time in the same room without speaking to one another. And if we can’t attempt to conduct a conversation in the space of a theatre, a space where we are all gathered together in a room with at least one point of contact, then what hope do we have elsewhere?