The Forbidden Experiment

Enormous Yes, The Arches Behaviour Festival, 22nd-25th April

Winners of this year’s Platform 18 award for cutting-edge artists, Enormous Yes make their first stop at the Arches with their new performance Forbidden Experiment.

Created and performed by Rob Jones and Michael John O’Neil, Forbidden Experiment ties together 15th century Scottish history, the letters of a Texan hick, a West End love story and three silent women. These converge on the island of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth, where the young King James IV sent two infants to live in isolation with a mute woman in order to ascertain mankind’s “natural language.” It is also where military operations of an unspoken kind took place during the Second World War; and where Michael John found episodic work from a mysterious employer  following an apparently brutal break-up.

As the audience enter, we are met by Rob and Michael John in full researcher garb (read: labcoats), who urge the musician to keep the atmosphere spooky. This show will be spooky. But it doesn’t start that way, instead we are introduced to the performers and start quite happily in the terrain of the real. This won’t last.

The stories never quite connect, yet the ways in which they are told begin to disintegrate into the same chaos. The plot strands are both live and variously mediated, and soon enough these doubles become unstuck. Where Michael John had put his face to a lightbox and been projected onto a screen, his projection soon talks of its own accord; words spoken into microphones come freely while their speaker’s mouths remain closed: all communication is uprooted, control is lost.

This is tempered however by reminders that these are three boys who know each other, in a room together, alongside a silent girl. While their banter is at times endearing, and at times so ridiculous that its performativity becomes obvious, there is a fine line between this and the kind of joking which makes you wonder whether the audience has to be there at all. Then there is the troubling introduction of depression as a theme which is never articulated to an extent which justifies its presence, so hangs like a poorly judged attempt at depth. While it may be an analogy for the breakdown of language, this is not suitably elaborated and makes the subject seem more an awkward play for effect than meaning.

That said, meaning on the whole does not have a place in this absurd, engaging and atmospheric piece of theatre, which certainly does have something to say for itself.

[Caitlin MacColl]

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