About Time You Saw: Tank at Edinburgh FringeBy Kate Wyver
Breach Theatre are private investigators. Following their exploration of the 1985 battle between police and New Age travellers in last year’s highly regarded show The Beanfield, they now unpack the story of Margaret Howe, the woman who fell in love with a dolphin.
In the 1960s Howe, played by Victoria Watson, conducted experiments on dolphins with the aim of getting them to talk. In 1965 she moved into a flooded house with one dolphin for 10 weeks as part of a NASA-funded programme. Breach unpick the growth and destruction of the relationship between Howe and said dolphin, Peter.
Like The Beanfield, Tank is concerned with the depiction of real stories as the company question how much creative licence we can take with them. The cast of four lay out the facts and fill in the fiction, passing half-sentences around like a deck of cards shuffled between them. These provide audible stage directions, setting scenes then backtracking, re-setting and fixing them in our minds to get them just right. The cast disagree about small details, reminding us that there’s a lot of uncertainty about this story. We can’t simply jump to the most sensationalist possibility. Even dolphins’ feelings need to be considered when putting them in front of an audience.
What could be presented as a gimmick turns into a serious lesson as Breach depict the disgusting way the dolphins are treated. Ellice Stevens and Billy Barrett direct as Joe Boylan plays Peter with unexpected fragility, where it would be easy to make a joke of the character. Gradually, as the bizarre story settles and we dive into the torturous conditions, the effect of humanising the animal makes us understand just how grotesque his experience really was. Through the use of sound distortion and simple gargling, Peter’s whimpers, groans and attempts at English are met with Howe’s tireless encouragement.
Breach have a wonderfully dry humour that undercuts Tank. Irony is rife throughout as misogyny is made a joke of with deadpan faces. It is Doctor John Lilly- one of the most controversial marine scientists, being a mystic who believes dolphins might help us contact extra-terrestrials- who allows Howe to join his team and work with the animals. Played by Craig Hamilton, Lilly is presented as a blank slate of white sexist male, his injections of LSD into the cetacean shown through a hippy dance number.
Smart dashes of projected video stylishly plunge us underwater. Film isn’t used in the same integral, enlightening way as it was in The Beanfield but Breach really do know how to make a stage look good.
It’s not seamless. Stevens’ narrator feels like a spare part and added empathy for Howe could allow us to understand her character more rather than simply taking her as a lonely woman with an unusual devotion to this animal. It feels unfair to constantly compare to The Beanfield, but the company set the standards incredibly high for themselves.
Breach Theatre are an incredibly clever, aware and probing company who have developed a unique style of documentary storytelling. Tank is a fun, strange and strangely sad exploration of how linked together love and pain can be. Breach explore how we present fact and how we fill in the gaps with fiction in this tale of an extraordinary relationship flooded with problems from the very beginning.