Theatre review: The Forbidden Experiment

IF A BLAZINGLY topical theme always guaranteed great theatre, then this latest work from the Glasgow duo Enormous Yes – which arrives at the Traverse next week – would be one of the Scottish shows of the year.

The Forbidden Experiment - Arches, Glasgow


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Like Iron Oxide’s HeLa in 2013, or Dogstar’s Factor 9, also reviewed today, it deals with the arrogance of science and with a scientific culture that has sometimes, under pressure, used human beings as lab rats, experimenting on their bodies without consent or respect.

In The Forbidden Experiment, Michael John O’Neill and Rob Jones bring together three stories of scientific experimentation gone wrong. There’s the hint that during the Second World War, the island of Inchkeith, in the Firth of Forth, may have been the scene of unknown scientific experiments on British and American troops stationed there. There is the massive experiment with the effects of radiation that surrounded the testing of early American atomic weapons in the New Mexico desert, around the same time.

And, at the centre of the show, there is the story of the 15th-century Scottish king, James IV, who is said to have isolated a mute woman and two young children on the same island of Inchkeith, in the hope that the children would grow up speaking the true language of God.

It’s a fascinating theme and at the core of it, there’s the notion that every human quest – for love or knowledge – is finally a quest for reunion with some lost “other half”, a complete and perfect version of the fractured self.

The show’s problems though, come with the means O’Neill and Jones use to tell the tale. Some elements of their theatrical box of tricks work well – Matt Regan’s powerful sound and music, the scruffy laboratory set, Zosia Jo’s striking solo dance sequences as, perhaps, the spirit of the little girl in King James’s experiment.

Enormous Yes belong, though, to a generation of young Glasgow performance artists for whom meta-theatrical reflection – constant return to the theme of how they can’t tell the story because they hate each other, or they can’t agree how to do it, or storytelling itself has become culturally impossible – has become a mannerism from which they cannot detach themselves.

There’s nothing wrong with the meta-narrative that links this show’s reflections on science to the pain of a failed love-affair supposedly experienced by O’Neill in the present day. The constant onstage bickering between O’Neill, Jones and Regan, though, fails to make its point clearly enough to be anything other than tedious.

The core strength of this show lies in O’Neill’s luridly brilliant writing and performance around the theme, whether he’s playing a crazed young King James, or a redneck 1940s dad dying of radiation sickness in the desert.

And the show itself would say more, in less time, if it focused more tightly on that strength and accepted that while questioning the pattern of narrative is essential, wasting time on flippant and unoriginal representations of narrative failure is a recipe for boredom, for all but the most specialised of industry audiences.

Seen on 22.04.14 - Traverse, Edinburgh 1-3 May