In the 19th century, scientist Ernst Haeckel argued that embryos contain their species’ evolutionary blueprint. So pushy was he in advocating his Recapitulation Theory that contemporary and subsequent scientists claimed he falsified his drawings of the embryonic cycle to better support his theory. Recapitulation Theory’s widespread currency also led Apsley Cherry-Garrard to go on a hapless expedition to Antarctica (dubbed ‘The Worst Journey in the World’) to retrieve Emperor Penguin eggs, hoping their embryos held the evolutionary link between reptiles and birds.
They didn’t. And Haeckel’s theory is now defunct. But such seductiveness of possible ‘secret knowledge’, the lengths we will go to gain it, and its other absurd implications are all abuzz in Marek Horn’s delightful satire, Yellowfin. Fast forward to a present-day, eco-apocalyptic parallel world where the fish have disappeared from the oceans and the English have all drowned, Michael Calantini (Joshua James) is facing an American Senate Committee for his role in the illegal trading of wild fish products. Namely, tinned tuna. Yellowfin tuna.
I say ‘abuzz’ because Horn’s script whirs like an outboard engine: purposeful, incessant, yet oddly melodic. That whirring too is reflected in the beautifully designed soundscape by Max Pappenheim; a quartet of tabletop microphones establish the stuffy register and intensity of the event, popping and echoing at such specific and well-timed moments. The text flakes luxuriously away, much like the fishy contraband in question. It’s sharp, tangy, and truly hilarious, a particularly striking feat given how steeped it is in fatty bureaucratic ‘due process’; the repetition of ‘let the record show’ over and over again until the literal worlds lose their meaning. But Horn uses that to his advantage; Yellowfin pokes fun at the ways in which red-tape procedure can be used as a sort of epistemological safety blanket for those terrified of the unknown, or, even worse, not knowing.
Joshua James’s Calantini is a rebellious truth-teller who carries scars from what he’s learned. Admittedly Calantini’s character could benefit from more of a character arc; his testimony mostly acts as an acid test cutting through the fat. Still, James adds a sort of anti-hero spin, endowing him with well-executed bro-ish bravado: he speaks rapidly and matter-of-factly, impatiently eye-rolling and mouth agape. It’s a smart layering, making Calantini somewhat unlikeable even while we feel most on his side. His performance is the perfect complement to Nancy Crane’s joyously punctilious Marianne, the lead senator on the committee who, more than anything, means well. Crane almost steals the show in her striking red suit if it weren’t for her brilliant sidekick senators; she executes such a stellar portrayal (one might say caricature if Crane didn’t also give Marianne depth) of a diligent, devout bureaucrat. But Nicholas Day as big-hearted, nostalgic Roy and Beruce Khan as the chilling careerist Stephen are also spot on, making this ensemble pretty faultless.
Much credit goes to director Ed Madden for showcasing and framing these performances with finesse. Although Horn’s inventive script is relatively static in its visuals (though not so much as to wonder why it’s not a radio play), Madden finds dynamism in exquisite pacing and in Pappenheim’s soundworld. Sure, sometimes a character’s choice to stand or sit feels guided by the need for some visual shifts, but it’s such a minor quibble. And Anisha Fields ensures that there is that typical cocktail of pomp (ie. red carpet) and dreariness (ie. fluorescent lights) normally found in such legislative settings.
Of course, Haeckel’s theory might have proven true. And perhaps, in this alternative universe, tinned tuna may yield invaluable information as to why the fish left. So there’s a fine line that Horn is walking, one where the absurdity of the conclusion is predicated on an awareness of its falsity. And while Horn does provide a taunting reminder to recontextualize when and what knowledge is important (and then to fuck the rest), Yellowfin seems more interested in charting human behaviour (whether for better or or worse) within a capitalistic paradigm: how we treat knowledge, how we treat the planet.
What replaces fish in a fishless world? ‘Squib’, according to Horn, these mutant ersatz creatures-of-the-deep concocted in test tubes, a result of an endless greed, a gnawing hunger to want what we can’t have. If there is an allure to knowledge, Horn asks what compels us to be so foolish when we seek it, and what ingredients make up that allure: greed, hubris, the desire to be known and the power in knowing are all contenders.
Yellowfin is on at Southwark Playhouse till 6th November. More info here.