HOME, Manchester

5th May 2017

This review was written for a one-off exercise to the following brief – Write a creative, non-conventional response to Tank. Try pushing yourselves outside your comfort zones and see what happens.

Some of this is known. In 1965, Margaret Lovatt lived with a dolphin for 10 weeks as part of an experiment to try to teach him to speak English. Funded by NASA this was not just about human to animal communication, they had their sights on making contact with other intelligent species somewhere way out in space…

Breach take the details of the story and excerpts from Margaret’s tape recordings of her work and use them as a springboard in to deeper more murky waters. The gaps are filled in with supposition, fantasy, argument and humour.

Margaret flicks through her notes. “Say after me, 1… 2… 3… 4…”.

4 sides to the tank, 4 actors, 4 voices, 4 view points.
3 dolphins – Peter, Pamela and Sissy.
2 scientists – Margaret Lovatt and John Lilly.
1 tank.

Tank – a large receptacle for liquid or gas

At Dolphin House, the Caribbean research institute, Margaret covers the office walls and floor with plaster to stop leaks and fills the room with water so she and male dolphin Peter can live in close proximity. She works from a desk or sleeps in her bed, both suspended over the pool. The actors fill plastic cups of water from a cooler – they gargle with them to make dolphin sounds. Occasionally on the video screen in the background we see Peter and Margaret in a pool, beautiful clear footage of them playfully swimming together underwater.

Not just water. Air is a mixture of gases. From Margaret’s oxygen filled top half of the tank there is a constant exhaling of words and sounds for Peter to learn and repeat back. B-a-w-l. He-l-lo.

Sperm is solid matter suspended in a liquid, but that’s another story.

Tank – a fighting vehicle

Waters are muddied, alternative views are offered up and confrontations take place. Different mammals – man and animal. Across genders – woman and man. Assigned roles – scientist and subject. Between times – the 1960s and now. The tiniest details get picked apart. Would Margaret wear heels or flats, would our gaze pan up and down her shapely legs as they emerge from an opening car door?

The Dolphin House experiments prioritize English as a form of communication, this is not about listening or shared learning. They’re developing a tool to expand the human race’s reach beyond planet Earth. In the background the Cold War simmers and the Space Race hots up.

Some battles are more intimate. Are Peter and Margaret somehow in love? When she masturbates him to relieve his increasingly frequent erections is it expedient or erotic? No one considers if dolphins can develop Stockholm syndrome?

Tank – American slang for a cell in a police station or jail

There is cruelty and confinement. Dolphins are injected with LSD, beaten away with a stick when they get too close, and kept in cramped conditions where their skins dry out in the shallow depths. When the funding dries up, Peter is carted away to squalid conditions in Miami. Dolphins aren’t deemed worthy of a ‘suicide watch’.

Tank – a receptacle with transparent sides in which to keep fish

Watching from outside the tank we are treated to something dark and slippery. But funny too. Four people dancing in formation as if recreating the opening titles of a James Bond movie. A rubber dolphin head mask. There are dry, knowing asides. Joe Boylan is outrageously at ease in his altered state of dolphiness – all sinuous charm and cocky vulnerability. Sophie Steer’s Margaret is calmly tenacious – her voice clipped and controlled.

The end when it comes is brutal. A cowboy with a gun appears. Peter, as if in a frenzy, gasps out film names and dialogue plucked randomly from the American machismo of Hollywood. It is a desperate messy bloody death.

Margaret to Peter “Don’t even think in your own language. English, all the time”

Tank – a word whose origins are from Gujarati or Sanskrit probably influenced by Portuguese and Latin.

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