John C Lilly was truly a scientist for the beat poet generation. His 1960s experiments with LSD, sensory deprivation and human-dolphin communication had one foot in popular culture, inspired by Lilly’s own experiences with hallucinogenic drugs and inspiring, amongst other things, an Arthur C Clarke novel. But he’s probably most widely known now as the man whose work caused a 23-year-old girl to wank off a dolphin.
Following the runaway success of last year’s The Beanfield, Breach Theatre have made a deeply weird and completely fascinating show about the period of time Margaret Howe Lovatt spent trying to teach dolphins to speak at Lilly’s research facility. A quick google of her name is fairly one-note.
But Breach are interested in more than a few awkward marine handjobs. They slip snugly into the space between how the experimenters saw what they were doing and how we, roughly 50 years on, see it, to expose how a quest for knowledge or progress can open up spaces for cruelty to get in. Tank is an arch, funny, ironic-seeming show, but that’s a thin veneer for their genuine horror at the treatment of the animals involved and, more than that, at how Othering works at such a deep, unexamined level that we can hurt those we claim to love or want to help.
The company are perhaps slightly crueller to Margaret than they need to be, and slightly less interested in Lilly than you’d expect: he was, after all, the actual scientist involved, the one the funding was awarded to, the one with the knowledge, experience and power. Yes, Margaret was totally inexperienced and underqualified and, frankly, a totally bizarre choice for the job, but that’s surely more his fault than hers? He picked her. But then I suppose she’s the one audiences really want to hear about – after all, when push comes to shove, she’s the one who tossed a dolphin off.
With two men and two women performing, the gender divide that contrasts their direct address monologues, who focuses on what, is funny and smart and lightly dispenses with the misogyny that characterises the cultural obsession with this story, the obsession with the performance by a pretty young woman of what was essentially a functional task. Ellice Stevens is hilarious as an especially damning narrator, while Joe Boylan is by turns funny and distressing as Peter, the dolphin Margaret spent months locked up with. His steady, insidious dehumanisation at the hands of the other performers works to highlight how trying to turn a dolphin into a person is an act of unthinking cruelty on a par with just the sort of dehumanisation that groups of people inflict on the Other in their midst.
There are a few technical difficulties as a result of the show’s ambitiousness, especially in terms of its sound design, and although the video elements are beautifully made they rarely add a great deal, as though film’s something the company feel tied to after The Beanfield. They shouldn’t worry about it, if so: the thing that really feels like their signature is the company’s smart, ironic voices, their steely political sense, the way they can smell casual cruelty like blood in the water and bear down on it relentlessly.
Ultimately, none of the technical problems detract in the least from what a delicately crafted show this is: a smart, strange, brilliant thing made with great care by a company who nailed their colours to the mast last year and can now afford to enjoy themselves.