Edinburgh review: Tank (Pleasance Dome)

This show from Breach Theatre looks at the story of a woman who talked to dolphins


People are weird. In 1963 NASA set up a research laboratory, headed up by a scientist called John Lilly, with the aim of teaching dolphins to talk English through their blow holes. Along the way they injected the dolphins with LSD, made a water-tight office and put a young researcher inside it. There she lived for three months with a dolphin called Peter.

It’s an extraordinary story and one that is taken up by Breach Theatre, the company behind 2015 Fringe hit The Beanfield. Here they take a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach to the tale, introducing us to the backstory of a woman called Margaret, who one day made her way to NASA’s laboratory on the island of St Thomas to help with the Cetacea. The only information the company have about her work with Peter are the verbatim tapes of some of the experiments. The company fill in the gaps, but nothing is simple: several different versions of the story are offered up. In one moment Margaret is meek, cute and obsessed with dolphins, in another she is a strong, pioneering woman.

On a table it the centre of the stage are two microphones. Into these are spoken the verbatim transcriptions – Margaret’s cooing, cajoling, encouraging voice gets increasingly exasperated, while Peter’s clicking and calling is pretty much constant dolphin gobbledygook. During the time in the water-tight office, both human and dolphin become aggressive, depressed and angry. As we watch them, things are thrown about the stage, clothes are stripped off and human and dolphin end up in a frantic, unhappy desperate dance.

It’s funny and bizarre and then very tragic. An experiment that was supposed to connect person to beast, becomes a disturbing demonstration of the human need to dominate and control. Tank shows us human nature at its most inhuman: it’s the dolphin that really comes off badly here. This is all happening at the height of Cold War paranoia when America and Russia were battling it out to score points off each other. Though there’s care in Margaret’s intentions, the experiment is driven by NASA’s desperation to be the first to crack the dolphin code. Tank is a chilling, unsettling look at what happens when we strive for progress at all costs.

Tank runs at Pleasance Dome at 10.30am until 20 August.

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