Kandinsky’s new show Dinomania digs into the annals of science to unearth a story less well known than, say, Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos, or Galileo’s bitter battle with the Inquisition. Gideon Mantell, an English doctor and geological enthusiast, discovers extraordinary fossilized teeth and begins the scientific study of dinosaurs. Through thoughtful excavation and entrancing storytelling, Kandinsky’s Dinomania points out the colossal exercise and the personal expense that goes into scientific advancement, as well as the multitudinous layers often buried beneath broad-stroke history.
Kandinsky do well to separate the strata of Mantell’s life and extract the most dramatically potent, funny, and richly textured moments. Chopped and chewed vignettes accompanied by piano (beautifully composed and played by Zac Gvirtzman) make up the backbone of this well-constructed biography. Operatic cries of ‘Deus Omnibus’ (‘God in all things’) initiate a melodramatic tone that’s nicely paralleled in Joshua Gadsby and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s design – a room encircled by cream damask curtains with the piano upstage centre. The operatic register continues throughout and hilariously colours the absurd arguments about science and religion, and a small plinth at the centre of the stage evokes both a museum setting as well as a lecture hall.
One of the best moments comes at the very beginning, when Janet Etuk moves through Mantell’s early life with such extraordinary simulation of child-like behaviour that it’s simply uncanny. The performers are without exception captivating, each exhibiting a real and personal investment in the story they’re unraveling. Scenes showing Mantel as a young doctor are also strong, where the stress of his career is contrasted with his joy of geology.
Curiously, the fossils are depicted as crusted, papier-mÃ¢chÃ© clothes sculpted into weird shapes. These correlate to the stuffed clothes that represent the bodies of Mantel’s patients, both of which end up discarded in a pile on stage. But still, the choice to represent the fossils as clothing feels underdeveloped or unclear, and doesn’t align with the decision to represent the fossilized teeth as a small rock.
Taking its name from both ‘deinos’ meaning fearful and mighty, and ‘mania’ meaning passion and obsession (or even madness), Dinomania astutely shows how passion, or perhaps obsession, can be a powerful tool that contorts as well as clarifies. In a funny vignette that charts the debate between Mantel’s scientific predecessors (Lamarque, Cuvier, and Grant), irrational arguments about the precise length of the days in Genesis and the taxonomy of the platypus demonstrate how fixating on preconceived beliefs can lead to absurd conclusions.
Dinomania also wrestles nicely with how personal ambition plays into narratives of discovery. From a young age, Mantell learns about the knightly legacy his surname bears. Such a pedigree instils in him a sense of aspiration, and while it’s clear Mantell is genuinely passionate about his collection, he’s also romanced by fame and status, and his compulsion to be glorified by the Royal Society brings about destitution for him and his family.
In a childhood excursion that slickly foreshadows his fate, Mantell catches a butterfly only to be accused of poaching by an aristocratic landowner. There’s a tragic component to Mantell: his desire to have his name etched into history is realised but not in the way he anticipated. After Mantell gives the fossilized teeth to Richard Owen, who famously coined the term ‘dinosaur’, Owen brutally reduces Mantell’s reputation to that of a mediocre hobbyist.
Particularly apparent in the narrative are the sacrifices made by Mantell, and those around him, in pursuit of scientific esteem. Sophie Steer plays his wife Mary, and although the heightened romance of their initial courtship seems incongruous to their subsequent relationship, the scenes between them best articulate Mantell’s humanity. They also, rather crucially, illustrate the sexist system that continuously fails to recognise women’s contributions to science. After all, Steer’s Mary actually finds the infamous teeth, draws the illustrations for Mantell’s book, and perhaps most crucially, supports and enables him by ensuring all other aspects of their life are in order.
Dinomania brilliantly extrapolates the political and personal embedded but not often depicted in science narratives. Like fossils, old pioneers of scientific advancement can be buried and forgotten under newer, more famous names with bigger discoveries. Perhaps most moving is the final scene, where Owen, beautifully portrayed by Harriet Webb, sadistically celebrates his destruction of Mantell, only to slowly realise that his days are also numbered. He too is susceptible to ideological extinction, vulnerable to the next generation of scientists eradicating that which comes before.
For Kandinsky, this is yet another nuanced, reflective, and highly creative approach to theatre-making. Original and perceptive, this is storytelling at its best.
Dinomania is on at New Diorama Theatre till 23rd March. More info here.