The truth, it seems, has never been more manipulable. In both national and global politics, facts have been demoted to interchangeable tokens. Numbers depend on who’s counting. We’re surrounded by fake news and alternative facts. 50 shades of truth and untruth.
Breach are here to tell us a true story. You can read about it on Wikipedia. It’s an inspiring story of pioneering scientists reaching for the stars. No. It’s a tragic story of unlikely romance. No. It’s a shameful story of exploitation and colonisation. No. It’s an embarrassing story of good intentions gone awry. No. It’s a story of institutionalised misogyny and sexist sensationalism. No.
It’s a story about a woman and a dolphin. The woman, Margaret Howe, is a college dropout who loves aquatic life. Or she’s a pioneering researcher who’s passionate about her work. Or she’s a woman in a man’s world who gets taken advantage of and thrown in (quite literally) at the deep end. The dolphin, Peter, is a research subject at the heart of a ground-breaking experiment. Or he’s an aggressive creature who needs to be taught and tamed. Or he’s just an animal, trapped and confused.
It all depends on your point of view.
Breach vigorously underline these diverging perceptions. Tank is, at face value, a show about an embarrassing footnote in the Space Race. Howe’s experiments with Peter were part of a NASA-funded research project led by John C. Lilly. The aim? Interspecies communication. If researchers could teach English to dolphins, then they might just be able to teach it to any extraterrestrial life NASA stumbled across. Or so the logic went. But Lilly and Howe failed. After five years of experiments, the project was shut down in 1967. Now it’s best remembered for the sensationalised fact that, during a 10-week period in which she and Peter co-habited, Howe masturbated a dolphin.
Beneath this quirky factual narrative, though, Tank bristles with ideas. Most of these come out in the telling. Tank is sort-of-verbatim: as Breach’s quartet of performers tell us at the opening of the show, only a fraction of the now fragile tapes containing recordings of Lilly and Howe’s experiments have been made publicly available. Everything aside from the limited selection of transcripts, then, is a matter of filling in the gaps.
Breach flood these holes in the story with competing and contradictory accounts. While Joe Boylan (strange, beguiling, remarkably dolphin-like) and Sophie Steer (quivering with the effort of staying in control of the experiment) step in and out of the roles of Peter and Margaret respectively, Ellice Stevens and Craig Hamilton commentate from the sidelines, pitching in with different interpretations of the events. Margaret arrives at the research station in a red convertible, silk scarf blowing in the wind. Or she drives a Volkswagen beetle and strides up the drive with the professional confidence of a pioneer. And so on. And so on.
As the performers bicker over the details (was this a love story or an experiment gone wrong?), there’s more than a hint of Forced Entertainment’s truncated narratives and interrupted falsehoods. This, though, is Forced Ents for a post-truth world. Breach might never settle on a single interpretation of the events they present us with, but there’s a powerful sense of what’s at stake in the choice between different ‘truths’. The danger of othering – so alarmingly apparent all around us in this new Brexit and Trump dominated reality – comes across particularly vividly, as does the destructive human impulse to control and colonise.
There are multiple layers of abuse here, from the impossible situation in which Margaret is placed, to the cruelty that she and her colleagues inflict on Peter, to the domineering imposition of the English language on both the human and the animal world. And Breach are painfully aware of all this. They might clothe these complexities in fashionable irony, but theirs is far from an empty postmodernist interest in the multiple nature of truth. We can’t be sure that we’re telling the story truthfully, they seem to be saying, but still the truth matters.
Sh!t Theatre are also here to tell us a true story. Their story. Or rather, their story and the story of Windsor House, the former council estate block where they rent a cramped, letter-strewn flat. Theirs is a vision of London’s housing crisis through the very personal prism of their own experiences. It’s their truth, but it’s the truth for countless others too.
Letters to Windsor House follows the same goofy documentary style as most of Sh!t Theatre’s previous work, using songs and silliness to delve into a serious issue. It all starts with the letters for previous occupants that keep dropping onto the doormat of Sh!t Theatre’s Becca and Louise. Discovering a handy loophole, they decide that it’s not strictly illegal to open the mail of these strangers, and one by one they track them down. There are, of course, fake names to protect privacy, and an insistence on the truth of what’s being told combined with deliberate notes of doubt.
What emerges from the scraps of information they piece together about Windsor House’s former residents is an indictment of the sorry state of London’s housing. These strangers all seem to be afflicted by debt and other financial woes, or they themselves have managed to exploit the wonky economics of the capital’s housing market. Soon it turns out that even Becca and Louise’s landlord has been making a dodgy buck by illegally subletting his council flat. But when they try to delve further, the facts become tangled and it’s hard to know who to believe. There are conflicting motives, too. Do they care more about the truth, or about making sure they don’t get turfed out of their ramshackle home?
Sometimes, in Sh!t Theatre’s detective mission to find the recipients of the titular letters, the scale tips a bit too far from serious to silly. The most compelling sections, though, are when Becca and Louise investigate the new luxury housing development that’s going up on their doorstep. In one bitterly hilarious sequence, they screen secretly filmed footage of the two of them being shown around one of the outrageously expensive apartments by an estate agent who promises that the local riff-raff will be kept at a safe distance. At other points in the show, they play the soundtrack from the development’s ad – rhapsodising about a green haven in the heart of the city – over footage of the area’s drab and grimy reality. One truth superimposed over another.
I’m manipulating the narrative a bit here too. These are just two shows that I happened to see within a couple of weeks of one another; just two shows of the hundreds that premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer. But they seem, at least to me, to capture a certain mood. In both, there’s an urgent yet uncertain interest in the truth. Breach and Sh!t Theatre each want to get to the bottom of something – they have a sense that separating the truth from the lies is increasingly important – yet they also realise it’s not as simple as that. There are questions of power here, of who gets to control the narrative. In the hands of a misogynistic media, Margaret and Peter’s story can only ever be one of sensationalised smut or bizarre attraction. With the advertising budget of a property developer, a deprived patch of London can be transformed into a leafy paradise for millionaire investors.
These shows also seem indicative of an interesting new direction in documentary theatre. My problem with verbatim shows, whether dry stagings of official documents or Alecky Blythe-style reconstructions of interviewees’ speech patterns, has always been that they seem to be trying too hard to tell the truth; their insistence on veracity tends to make me prickle with suspicion. In their narrating of real events and experiences, meanwhile, there’s rarely acknowledgement in these shows of the elision and editing involved.
By contrast, theatre-makers like Breach and Sh!t Theatre enter into a slippery and subjective relationship with the real-life subjects they interrogate. They are less interested in a televisual documentary style that aims for an illusion of unmediated contact with the truth and more interested in the playfulness and fakery of theatre. But unlike some of the earlier companies whose influences are traceable in their work, their irony is tainted with unease. Because they know that there’s more than one way of telling a story, and they also know that the consequences of alternative facts are far from fictional.
It’s complicated, sure. But how we tell stories matters. Facts matter. Now, perhaps, more than ever.