I was a bit lukewarm about Breach Theatre's acclaimed debut play, last year's 'Beanfield' - I thought maybe I could detect an awkward note of cultural appropriation in the young company's documentation of their quixotic quest to learn more about the Battle of the Beanfield.
'Tank' kind of makes me consider the possibility that everybody else was right and I was wrong. This one also concerns historical events: a NASA initiative from the mid-‘60s to try and teach the English language to dolphins. Specifically Margaret Howe Lovatt, who felt she could make a breakthrough with her favourite dolphin Peter by living with him in a specially converted flooded home for a period of 12 weeks. By most sensible measures it didn’t go very well: Peter failed to learn English in any meaningful sense, sometimes violently attacked Lovatt, and had to be wanked off eight times a day just to chill him the hell out (now the best-remembered fact of the trial).
‘Tank’ is presented as a verbatim play, though that’s not necessarily what it is: the four performing members of Breach bicker and argue over the presentation of a story that is only literally contained in fragmentary transcripts from tapes so elderly they have to be baked before listening (to get the water out). The two men in the company have a tendency to get furiously excited by the woman-has-sex-with-a-dolphin angle (‘but it’s the best bit!’ yelps one, plaintively). The women are not standing for it, toning down the men’s pneumatic descriptions of Lovatt and wearily pointing out that relations between the two were only equivalent to the average dairy and their cattle.
It is a tricksy and fascinating piece of theatre. Like ‘Beanfield’, it feels like it’s about the difficulty in connecting to a vanishing past through the prism of the present. But it’s also genuinely about the events that took place, with long passages in which Victoria Watson’s Lovatt pleads despairingly, cruelly with Joe Boylan’s Peter to speak English. It’s a funny, dark, and strangely dreamy work about the futility and fanaticism in humankind’s desire to colonise the other.