I've seen many things in my twenty seven years, thanks to the number of interesting individuals I have been fortunate enough to meet, and the accidental internet searches I have succumbed myself to. What I had not seen though, was a play about a woman wanking off a dolphin. Thanks to Breach Theatre's award-winning performance Tank, now I have.
Tank is a four actor-led performance based around the 1965 Dolphin House experiments - an exploration, led by John C. Lily, into the ability of dolphins to learn the English language. The play focuses on the young Margaret Howe Lovatt, who, despite not being a scientist, became closely involved in this research, ending up designing a ten week experiment in which she lived in isolation with one of the adolescent dolphins, Peter.
The sixties was prime time for psychological experimentation into both animals and humans; it was a time of bringing up baby monkeys alongside children, and subjecting psychopaths to LSD endurance sessions. So the idea that dolphins had the capability of learning how to speak English through their blowholes was seen as such an achievable aim it was actually funded by NASA, who thought research into teaching non-humans English would prove useful when they discovered intelligent life beyond our galaxy (and they'd of course be achieving that before Russia…)
The factual aspects of the play came from the original transcripts recorded by Margaret. A particularly interesting aspect was the decision to clarify the rest of the play as fictional. Throughout, the narrating actors argue about the visual elements to the play - quibbling over the car Margaret was driving when she arrived at the lab, her appearance, her relationship with Peter. Because it is such a bizarre story, this was a very clever way of doing it, we have the facts and we are aware that the rest is disputed. Is this what they call 'meta'? Yes, there are parts we know are true - she lived with this dolphin, shared a space with him for ten weeks at the lab, taking her meals, sleeping on a raised bed hanging above the tank, and yes Peter did get so sexually pent up and aggressive (did you know that dolphins have sex about eight times a day? Lucky for some…) that she ended up having to 'relieve him' with her hands or feet, to save herself from him literally flinging himself on her. But the rest is disputed. And in fact because we are so aware of what is fact and what is fiction, the factual elements are all the more shocking. For example, in the name of science, that they injected this dolphin with LSD, or that they kept him in six inches of water, so the whole of the top of his back dried out. The way this controversy is performed reminds us how easily stories can be manipulated, how we cannot trust what we hear or read (all the more relevant, perhaps, in our current times).
The confidence the actors took in this complex subject matter, and the creativity with which it was performed was brilliant. Its often shocking subject matter was performed with a comic, surreal touch. Video, sound (including some very impressive dolphin noises) and movement were all employed excellently in this incredibly well-designed play. I only wish I had told my plus one what it was going to be about. I may have scarred her for life.