It’s the Cold War. In 1957 the USSR launched the first satellite to ever orbit Earth, Sputnik 1. It leaves the United States uneasy. This display of scientific and technological advancement is interpreted as posing a serious threat to US national security. President Eisenhower coins it the Sputnik Crisis. NASA is born. The space race is on. Breach Theatre haul us back to this paranoid, desperate time to give us a story which happens within this Cold War murk.
Four actors enter onto the stage and explain the dominant theory of human language acquisition. Children learn to speak through constant, close contact with their mothers. The scientist John Lilly hypothesised that a dolphin could be taught to speak English in a similar way. Crucially, dolphins have pre-historic brains. It was hoped that information gathered here would then open up the lines of communication to alien life on other planets, truly propelling the US ahead in the space race. This is how Margaret Howe Lovatt wound up living with a dolphin in attempt to teach him to speak English. She is brilliantly brought to life by the assuredly spoken Sophie Steer, while Joe Boylan plays Peter the dolphin with incredible sensitivity. Craig Hamilton and Ellice Stevens playfully fight to elucidate this insanely true story.
With no relevant qualifications, Margaret Howe Lovatt managed to seduce and enchant the scientist John Lilly. She got on his dolphin research programme. She took an immediate liking to Peter, the dolphin. It is from this point that she got too close to him. She fell in love with Peter, so much so that she moved in with him, into a tank. After initially resisting his sexual advances, one day she resisted no more, she masturbated him. They were forced to separate after the experiment was brought to an abrupt end. He died from a broken heart.
Or, is it a bit more like this…?
John Lilly knew he could count on the dedication and enthusiasm Margaret had at the initial meeting for the project. She met the dolphins and found that Peter was especially receptive to learning, and so focused on training with him. Unwilling to let the experiment fall apart from half measures she ensured that she was in constant close contact with the dolphin, as per the theory, by staying with him both day and night, in a specially created tank. Naturally, Peter began to get sexual urges. She did what was necessary to subdue him and continue the experiment. He sadly died two years later whilst in poor captivity conditions.
There are innumerable ways to tell a story around indisputable facts. Sometimes it is purposefully done for spin, sometimes it is done with unintended bias. Both result in misrepresentation. As time progresses and we look back to such stories, what has been told becomes our history. By creatively giving us multiple versions, conflictingly narrated by Craig Hamilton and Ellice Stevens, Breach Theatre raise questions about how easy it is to slip into misleading narratives and capture the wrong essence of a story.
Throughout, the plight of the Peter is portrayed with such heartening empathy. Margaret’s commanding voice cuts deeper and deeper as the experiment wares on, really giving us a feel for the psychologically intense conditions Peter found himself in, as he struggled to interpret what Margaret wanted from him. She is unrelenting. “Don’t even think in your own language. English, all the time!” Meanwhile Joe Boylan really excels at translating the suffering of the dolphin into an outward display of human emotion. Writhing, spluttering and choking under the strain of the experiment, so much so that when the performance comes to a climax, it leaves you with the cruelty that underpins the whole story.
This performance is an indictment of how we treat animals, and indictment of the way in which a story is told and how history is made. It leaves us with questions about the responsibility we have to both. This is something special.