theatre review | Read in About 2 minutes
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Published 09 Aug 2016

In the mid-sixties, at the height of the Cold War, American scientists tried to teach dolphins to speak English. Blame the space race, and the apparent need to communicate with aliens.

Breach Theatre, the company behind last year's The Beanfield, turn that attempt at cross-species communication into a very contemporary consideration of otherness. How do we bridge the gaps between distinct groups? How do we live together despite difference? The Americans didn’t try to learn Dolphin, they sought to impose English on them. The enclosure they designed for human-dolphin cohabitation suited the scientists far better than their subjects.

Tank teases weighty implications out of a light, faintly ludicrous story: actors gargling in ‘Dolphin’ and dropping into dance. As in The Beanfield, Breach take care with representation and re-enactment. Working from fragmentary transcripts—this must be the first show to quote aquatic animals verbatim—they rebuild the narrative using filmic tropes and a pop soundtrack.

It’s an acknowledgement that whoever controls culture controls the story as a whole. As performers tussle over the truth, the women stripping out sexist clichés, Tank becomes as much about gender—the clash of male and female natures—as the conditions for multiculturalism. When a dolphin, Peter, grows agitated and aggressive, the female scientist has to placate him with masturbation. His violence overpowers her welfare.

It gets tangled trying to find an ending, and can be too keen to commentate on itself, but Tank is an impressive piece of thinking through theatre and Breach is a very special young company. Be more dolphin.