Unpredictable: Belvoir's Conversation Piece

The prospect is tantalising. “A group of actors and dancers meet on stage and begin the show with a short conversation about… Well, we don’t know yet. Each night it will be a different conversation – just an ordinary pre-show chat like [the audience themselves might have] – and this conversation will form the basis of the rather surprising performance that follows.”
Conversation Piece is a mad idea by any standard. By its very nature, every single performance of its three-week run is going to be different, unique, irreplicable; the very best example of an act of theatre – lost into the ether, contained only within the memories of its participants.
It’s also a wonderful show.
The performance I saw featured a conversation between the dancers – Alisdair Macindoe, Rennie McDougall, Harriet Ritchie – spanning dentists, dental hygiene, doctors, internet-shorthand and abbreviations, technology, its rapid taking-over of our lives, IKEA giftcards, Christmas gift-giving, gift horses, dying horses, and finally, death (in words that seem to be taken straight out of Tom Stoppard’s astonishing ‘dead in a box’ monologue from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.) Watching it, you’re not quite sure of how real the conversation is with regards to the performers own experiences and beliefs, or whether it too is just another improvisation, just words. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Following this conversation between the dancers, recorded on iPhones which will become a key and clever component of the show, the actors – Alison Bell, Megan Holloway, Matthew Whittet – enter, and repeat the conversation word for word, laugh for laugh, and it really is one of the more bizarre things I’ve seen on stage. To hear a conversation you just heard repeated to you, beat for beat, is one thing – we can do it anytime on our phones or computers, but to hear it live by actors different to those who spoke it, physically repeating every moment of the conversation, is bizarre, surreal even.
The conversation is then fragmented, replayed, riffed upon, interpreted, interpolated, throughout the next sixty minutes (it is a seventy-five minute show). Dance segments – looking like something of a cross between a Bollywood number, an outtake from Cats, and any number of contemporary dance styles – ensue, followed by a genius segment featuring the sounds of a musical iPhone app and actor Matthew Whittet’s bodily thrusts. Highlights of the performance include actor Alison Bell’s attempts at mimicking dancer Harriet Ritchie’s moves are brilliant, touching, especially when accompanied by cleverly-deployed sounds of a drum-kit. Megan Holloway’s improvised dance is all the more funny and alarming when mimicked and reinterpreted by dancer Rennie McDougall. Dancer Alisdair Macindoe’s persuasive – dominating – mimicry of Matthew Whittet’s mannerisms during their cleverly constructed (albeit disjointed) conversation soon prove to become too much, leaving Whittet on the ground curled in something close to the foetal position.
The ending, set to the cacophonous and echoing digitally-engineered drone of collapsing rubble, the three rows of seating – along with their occupants – are tipped onto the floor in the dim light of one fluorescent light, and as the final moments of the conversation are replayed, six iPhones hanging in the space as speakers, tiny little rectangles of white light, we hear the original conversation about dying horses and death, the fear of being buried alive, sent to the crematorium whilst still alive, fade into the blackness of the dim theatre.
I’ve spent the evening trying to work out what it’s like, and though I can try and compare it to something, the truth is that actually does it a disservice. It is an ingeniously conceived piece of dance/theatre which emerges and grows, takes shape on the stage before your eyes, and you never quite know which way it’s going to turn next, not quite sure of what is going to happen.
It was – is – marvellous, riveting stuff, definitely not your average night at the theatre, but worth every dollar and then some, for the simple reason that it was totally different to anything else. Guerin’s work here, as in Human Interest Story from Belvoir’s 2011 season, is about the ideas and their exploration, the play and freedom that comes out of exploring them. It’s fascinating theatre, just watching these six performers riff on the themes of a fifteen minute conversation. At times unexpected and harrowing, at others deliciously funny and engaging, it’s a breath of fresh air into the theatrical landscape and the seeming rigidity of the theatrical form, and as a seventy-five minute piece of mostly improvised theatre, it was astonishing, unbeatable. And I loved it. 

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