Tank by Breach Theatre
HOME, Manchester [06.05.17]
CW: Mention of domestic violence, sexual violence, suicide
Sonny and Cher are an excellent opener for almost anything.
A film projection of a swimming pool. A table with some technical sound equipment. Two chairs. A water cooler with a stack of plastic cups. The actors enter one by one and fill themselves a cup of water. They drink. And so, our rather unusual and completely off the wall afternoon begins.
1965. 52 years ago. 28 years before I was born. A man named John C Lilly has decided that he wants to teach dolphins to speak English because of course, that’s the most important language (western entitlement much) and with any luck, they’d help us communicate with extraterrestrial life (erects index finger: “ET Phone Home”). At this point, you should prepare yourself for an underwater country western that puts Carry On Cowboy to shame – Breach theatre bring us sinister banter, compelling storytelling and synchronised choreography that could easily rival the 1988 version of Hairspray (you know, the one with Ricki Lake).
Enter Margaret. A college dropout who could be driving any of a handful of cars, dependent on which narrator you’d like to believe. She knows nothing about linguistics or phonology but she really likes dolphins so she heads to Dolphin Point to help John Boy (I just imagine that Mr Lilly could be in The Waltons) with his TESOL delivery. As someone who trained as a speech and language therapist, I have to see these lessons were very… odd. I mean, I’d be interested to know how the corpus of words was chosen for these experiments and whether or not they utilised the principles of phonological development to assist them. Also curious as to whether, minimal pairs played any role in the teaching of voiced and voiceless consonants or whether they just focused on whole words with particular attention to vowels. Now, that I’ve got this out of my system, I’ll consult my good friend Google to tell me the answers. Anyway, where were we?
Oh yes, so Margaret is helping to teach the dolphins English and this quickly escalates to her basically living in a flooded room with a dolphin called Peter. You really can’t make this shit up. Peter slowly starts to feel some kinda way about Margaret over the course of this 10 week experiment and then it just ends (the romance, not the play). Think Summer Nights in Grease except Peter transitions between being Sandy and Danny faster than you can down a dirty pint after a game of mushroom. Chuck in some brilliantly funny choreography, hilarious dolphin sounds, narrators with the majesty of Jerry Springer, a rubber dolphin head (worn by Joe Boylan who makes a rather exceptional dolphin with and without said head) and a cowboy, and you’re in for an experience, that’s for sure.
It’s now probably a good time to say that if you’re in search of more of the factual elements of this story (as in the actual experiment that took place in the 60’s), I am going to advise you converse with Wikipedia. And I am doing so because Tank does something quite incredible that is arguably more important than the facts of this rather peculiar experiment.
It is very rare that a piece of theatre can take an out of the ordinary and borderline ridiculous scenario and successfully use that as a vehicle to shed honest light on the extensive entanglements of relationship spectrum. To put it simply, imagine this: a man walks into a bar and makes a joke about a dolphin playing rough with a woman because he’s sexually attracted to her. People laugh. Reframe that and replace dolphin with man. Despite this story being true in its literal sense, it is also true in its underlying exploration of domestic and sexual violence towards women. What starts off as the odd nudge, a ‘playful’ dunking under the water, a poking in the ribs soon escalates to more brash methods of physical interaction and a developing blend of denial and fear in the person experiencing it. Margaret, played by Sophie Steer, describes to the narrators how she feels that Peter wants to cut her open, right through her middle, through her onto the beach and stick a flagpole in her. This was met by the audience with laughter. But, this is a reality for hundreds of women living in and surviving abuse in the home. As Peter and Margaret’s relationship begins to breakdown, there are questions around whether or not Margaret cares about Peter anymore, if she still feels the same way, whether his feelings matter to her. The same sorts of unhelpful questions that survivors are asked when starting to remove themselves from the toxic situation they are in. Breach Theatre have successfully managed to explore and unveil this topic in an exploratory manner that welcomes an audience to consider the politics of abusive relationships and gives a platform to the voice of the victim. Watching this as a survivor, I was overwhelmed by how accurate and truthful this narrative was delivered. Every actors exceptional physicality and storytelling skills gave this piece an honesty and authenticity that really moved me.
This play ends with Peter’s suicide. But, we are not left holding Margaret responsible. The responsibility lies with everyone involved. We are left wondering what Peter was meant to get out of this experiment? Even if Margaret had taught him to repeat in English, would it ever mean anything? A whole lot of phonology with the semantics, a metaphor for broken relationships that continue existing despite lacking one crucial ingredient: meaning. Peter’s last moments in a small tank away from his room with Margaret replicate the suffocation that Margaret experienced in her 10 weeks with Peter. History repeats itself wearing a new bloody gown, regularly checking the time.
Verdict: Tank isn’t just a funny tale of a daft 1960’s experiment in America. It’s a groundbreaking, honest and very real portrayal of dark side of relationships and an active examination of ethics and choice. This piece is a strong and important reminder that theatre by nature is political and it does damn good job at owning that. It is an act of solidarity to survivors and an absolute must see. I’m not really down with star ratings but, this really does deserve all of the stars.