Edinburgh Fringe 2013
Nigel Barrett looks a bit like a cave-man in a toupee as he stands, silhouetted before us. His towering presence more than fills the large, open stage in +3, the top-most theatre at C Venues on Chambers Street. It’s the final performance of their Edinburgh run and we are not a huge audience, but that doesn’t matter. Barrett could captivate three as easily as he could do three thousand. This duo (Barrett and collaborator Louise Mari) have been making work together for a long time, and their work has a certain feel – brooding, yet light-hearted; edgy yet cuddly. The superficial topic this time is conversation. Barrett will be presenting us with a kind of lecture – a series of classes from The Ethel Cotton Course in Conversation, an antique instructional manual on the art of conversing that’s archetypal of imperial Brittania. Beneath the surface lurks a morass of issues all tied up with the notions of class, race, and entitlement that still haunt us. There is an institutional racism in these gentle words of kindness and tolerance that’s chilling, and Barrett’s utterly charming, disarming smile only underlines the hypocrisy.
Barrett and Mari’s use of tech is brilliant. Unsettling music fills transitions between segments as Mari’s emotionless voice-overs quiz us, questioning our worth as people. With knives out, these two artists turn a critical and unforgiving eye on Society (note the capital S). Sharp, minimal lighting supports the sense of disquiet the two build as Barrett capers, the perfect host, and reads from the worn tome while Mari, always unseen but vigilant and omnipresent, keeps her eye on us never letting us forget that we are being judged. The aesthetic is simple but effective – travelling lecturer cum salesman, Barrett pulls everything he needs from worn suitcases, the baggage of oppression and dated values systems of years gone by. Use of costume, props, and varying degrees of audience participation help get the message across with remarkable effectiveness.
Nigel and Louise’s hallmark is that, despite creating work that is biting and deeply complex, they are able to keep us on side. Never patronising or pretentious, they make us feel welcome. There is something so unassuming about the both of them that they can get away with making very edgy, obscure, avant garde work without condescending or leaving us feeling resentful as we sit scratching our heads in the dark. The experience is as pleasurable as it is thought provoking and their innovations, simple as they may be, are always surprising.
Offered free ticketed, A Conversation is a gift. A warm, fireside chat of a piece, which shines a light into the dark places in our seemingly tidy sitting rooms and shows us the grime there. We are all talking excitedly about how the show made us feel, and what it meant as Barrett and Mari clear up after it ends, each conversation animated and full of insightful observations. Ethel Cotton would be proud… Or maybe appalled.