For the sake of science?
Breach Theatre get back on stage with a merciless, disturbing and witty investigation about the Dolphin House experiment of the 1960s, a metaphor of the United States’ domination during the Cold War. Battersea Arts Centre becomes a boxing ring where the human-dolphin war of words resembles humankind’s tendency to control the other through imposing its language and culture.
La giovane Compagnia Breach Theatre, appena al suo secondo lavoro, porta in scena Tank, la complessa relazione tra una ricercatrice statunitense e il delfino Peter, durante un esperimento sulla comunicazione interspecie. Il Battersea Arts Centre di Londra diventa un ring in cui natura umana e animale combattono per mantenere la propria identità (o per imporre la propria all’altro). Un’indagine impietosa – e a tratti scioccante – del progetto, finanziato dalla NASA negli anni Sessanta, che molto ha da dire sulla necessità umana di colonizzare l’altro tramite l’imposizione della propria lingua e cultura.
Some spectators might see Tank because captivated by the famous research into human-animal communication. Others may be intrigued by the woman-who-had-sex-with-a-dolphin angle, or by the use of LSD on captive dolphins for scientific purpose – for which the NASA-funded experiment probably remains best known. Whatever the reason, Breach Theatre sharply dig into the darkest side of the experiment, by stripping the story of all its prurience. And finally, it leaves the audience in company with all the cruelty and arrogance and futility of a scientific project which actually ended in tragedy.
First of all, Tank is a verbatim play: we observe the four performers arguing over the presentation of the story about Margaret and Peter the Dolphin. They can only rely on fragmentary transcripts from old tapes, so the audience soon realise that the manipulation of facts is unavoidable when telling a story. “The tapes tell a story, but it’s only a part of it”. Many times during the drama we feel like we are missing something, or rather, that some sort of censorship is preventing us from learning the whole truth (is this for the sake of science?). Breach suggest an interpretation, but it is up to us all to fill in the gaps.
The story is then put into context. We are in the early Sixties; neuroscientist John Lilly has been studying dolphins since 1957, after noticing how these mammals seems to mimic the sounds of human voices. NASA and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) become interested in Lilly’s study: dolphins are extremely intelligent and have pre-historic brains – “alien, in a way”. If so, there are exciting new opportunities to understand the challenges of communicating with other intelligent species. Thus, Lilly wins the financial support from Nasa, opens a new lab in the Caribbean, and in 1963 starts his research.
With excellent timing, just a few months later, researcher Margaret Lovatt arrives there. She has heard there are dolphins and she wants to work with them. Margaret is, in fact, a college dropout who has “never studied biology, or linguistics, or actually anything else relevant at all”. In two words, an unqualified researcher, comically portrayed more as a gunslinger than a pioneer. However, Margaret is now part of the project aimed to teach dolphins to speak English (and not the opposite, which is interesting). She will live for a long time in a specially converted flooded home at close quarters with Peter, one of the three mammals at the Dolphin Lab.
Despite Margaret’s firm belief in the project, her “grand idea” of immersing Peter in English fails to bring the desired results. The animal does not make any meaningful progress, “Not in ten weeks, nor in the whole five years”: an unreasonably long period of time for a dolphin to attend repetitive, exhausting lessons (“Don’t even think in your own language. English, all the time!”). Peter’s distress – alongside his unsatisfied sexual urges, which progressively turns into violence and obsessive behaviours – becomes too rough to be handled. “You are heavy, Peter”, “You are vicious, Peter”. But Peter, after all, is an animal, and he tries to engage on a dolphin level. Margaret decides to address the problem in the way everybody knows – masturbating it. Which is, if not the “best bit” of the story – as someone yelps – at least, the sign that something got irredeemably out of control. The final section of the drama is increasingly unsettling and shows the characters drifting into the exhausting end of the experiment – and of their relationship.
After their last year’s debut, The Beanfield, Breach Theatre successfully continue their investigation into the possibilities of reworking history through performance. The result is an engrossing, unsettling, sharply conceived scientific satire, through its clever amalgamation of film pitch, table-read, verbatim sections and rehearsal room.
The show is still playing
Battersea Arts Centre
Lavender Hill, London – SW11 5TN until Saturday the 1st of April, Mon-Sat 21.00
(Age Recommendation: 14+)
directed by Billy Barrett and Ellice Stevens
video by Dorothy Allen-Pickard
written by Billy Barrett, Joe Boylan, Craig Hamilton, Ellice Stevens and Victoria Watson
performed by Joe Boylan, Craig Hamilton, Ellice Stevens and Bryony Davies
winner of a Fringe First Award 2016
commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre with support from The Bike Shed Theatre, Camden People’s Theatre, Lyric Hammersmith, Moor Theatre Delicatessen and New Diorama Theatre