It’s 1963. NASA is keen to fund research into inter-species communication, hoping that , should intelligent life be discovered through space exploration, it can be duly appropriated by the USA (this is, after all, the Cold War). Accordingly, they are on the lookout for a kind of fast-track TEFL course for aliens. Dolphins offer a real opportunity here: they have large but pre-historic brains and there is evidence of both high intelligence and the ability to imitate human sounds. The stage is set.
Enter Margaret (Margaret Howe Lovatt). With no qualifications other than curiosity and enthusiasm, Margaret persuades the Director of the Communication Research Institute to fill a room with water, sling a bed, desk and shower from the ceiling and allow her to live 24/7 with Peter, an adolescent dolphin, over a 10 week period. By creating a relationship of total dependency and intimacy (and yes, an intimacy that extends to sexual gratification – for Peter, anyway), she hopes to induce him both to comprehend and to speak English.
It is an extraordinary story of behaviourism gone mad, and of the forced physical and psychological disintegration of a dolphin – all in the name of ‘progress’ (for which, read ‘power’). And – fast forward to May 2017 – it’s all presented to us by Breach Theatre on the floor of Theatre 2 at HOME, Manchester.
The four cast members – Craig Hamilton, Ellice Stevens, Joe Boylan and Sophie Steer – line up on stage, facing the audience. Behind them is a water-cooler and a desk with two microphones. Having explained the factual background, they collectively describe the moment when Margaret arrives at the lab as if it were a movie. They bicker about what car she’s driving, the kind of shoes she’s wearing and to what extend the movie version would focus on her ‘slender legs’ as she climbs out of the car. It’s quick-fire and witty and, in communicating more about each of the cast members than about the event itself, we become engaged with them and invested in their show.
We move on to see Margaret at work. Ingeniously, Sophie (as Margaret) and Joe (as Peter the dolphin) sit at the two microphones. Peter’s microphone is slightly distorted and he makes clicking and whistling and swishing noises in response to Margaret’s exaggerated attempts to induce him to say ‘Ball’ and ‘Hello’. It is ridiculous and funny – and it beautifully establishes the power-relationship between the controlling Margaret and the bewildered and helpless (but pathetically willing) dolphin, Peter.
This is reinforced by a second hilarious sequence where Ellice plays a female dolphin whose responses to Margaret’s urgings and encouragement swing from incomprehension to utter contempt – all vividly conveyed through dolphin noises and facial expressions.
But all of this is simply to set up the main event. Tape is brought out to define the area of the flooded room where Peter and Margaret will spend the next ten weeks. And the mood shifts.
A video starts to play on the back wall, showing Joe and Sophie swimming underwater in various playful/aggressive interactions. Onstage, Sophie-as-Margaret relentlessly pursues her lessons while becoming increasingly fearful of her confined, dependent and sexually frustrated pupil (Joe-as-Peter). Meanwhile, Craig and Ellice pace in and out of the ‘tank’, providing a commentary on the action inside – and, as that action intensifies, they debate with each other as to the nature of the relationship that is developing there. Is it love? What is the significance of “the sexual stuff”. What is it OK to do in the name of ‘progress’?
As the play builds towards its frenzied conclusion, Peter and Margaret (we no longer see them as Joe and Sophie) are locked together in an increasingly desperate physical struggle while Craig and Ellice calmly document the outcome of the experiment and its aftermath.
This ‘stranger-than-fiction’ story is brilliantly and evocatively told by four people with the aid of minimal props. There is a moment where Joe puts on a dolphin mask, but it is superfluous: we have completely bought into his representation of the dolphin. The pacing is perfect, as is the balance between fact and imagining, action and commentary. It is a brutal story, which is clearly intended to shock. And it succeeds. Verbatim theatre at its best.