Theatre preview: The Forbidden Experiment

In dramatising the story of Inchkeith, Enormous Yes discovered some disturbing secrets about its past, writes Susan Mansfield
The Forbidden Experiment. Picture: ContributedThe Forbidden Experiment. Picture: Contributed
The Forbidden Experiment. Picture: Contributed

MANY a rail traveller has looked down from the Forth Bridge and found their eye drawn to the island of Inchkeith, with its atmospheric ruins. And well might they ponder. The more one investigates the history of the island, the stranger the stories that emerge, as one young theatre company has discovered.

Rob Jones and Michael John O’Neill, the founders of Enormous Yes, received an Arches Platform 18 development award to create a show called The Forbidden Experiment about the island. It premieres next week at Glasgow’s Arches as part of the Behaviour Festival, before moving on to performances at the Traverse in Edinburgh in May. Their take on Inchkeith encompasses medieval kings, wartime spooks and the atom bomb, as well as a hint of sci-fi B-movie.

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“Inchkeith is to storytelling what spinach is to Popeye,” says Jones, making both of them roar with laughter. “It’s the ultimate catalyst: so many abandoned things in the corner of an old concrete room, so many odd markings on the wall. You can make up a million reasons for why this was left here and who made this mark. It’s such a rich soup to swim in.”

When I meet them, both are drinking Earl Grey tea during a break from rehearsals in the Arches, admitting they are enjoying “the most luxurious rehearsal period we’ve ever had”. The Platform 18 award has meant that not only can they invite collaborators, such as dancer and movement director Zosia Jo, and enjoy the support of director Graham McLaren as mentor and writer Frances Poet as dramaturg, they can also relax into a funded rehearsal period.

Both Jones and O’Neill are graduates of Glasgow University and worked in student theatre and in post-university company Flatrate, putting on plays at the Tron’s Changing House. Jones won a place on National Theatre of Scotland’s Emerge programme for young directors in 2012 and worked as assistant director on Macbeth with Alan Cumming and John Tiffany. O’Neill 
was part of the final phase of NTS’s Auteurs programme and is one of the Traverse 50.

They formed Enormous Yes in 2012 with the aim of creating work characterised by storytelling, particularly the interplay of fact and fiction, past and present, and started to appear in their own shows because (in Jones’s words) “when you can’t pay anyone, it’s easier not to pay yourself than it is not to pay actors”. They talk fluidly together about their work, interweaving sentences but rarely interrupting one another. Like early projects by Suspect Culture or New York-based The TEAM, they work in a combination of devising and (O’Neill’s) writing. Jones says: “We like to think it’s a process that brings in the best of the devising process and solo authorship.”

The name Enormous Yes comes from a line in Philip Larkin’s poem For Sidney Bechet: “On me your voice falls as they say love should / Like an enormous yes.” Jones says: “What’s contained within that little section of the poem is that the music is a revelation, it makes Larkin think about something in a way he hadn’t done before, which is what love does. I think we both believe quite passionately that as human beings we should all be questioning things as much as possible and as thoroughly as possible. We would like to re-strange the world, so people say: ‘This thing I thought I knew, I’m not sure about 
it anymore, I want to ask questions about it.’”

Their first show as Enormous Yes was Need Nothing at Arches Live in 2012, in which they created a (fictional) neo-libertarian cult. A development of that story, Sleep Tight Bobby Cairns, was performed at the Tron during Mayfesto the following year. Bonny Boys Are Few, an interweaving of stories around Michael’s relationship with his father (but also taking in the Spanish Armada, some Irish myth and a few lines by a rather famous poet) debuted at Arches Live last year, and will be performed next month at the Brighton Fringe.

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Which brings us back to Inchkeith, a fascination of Jones’s which wouldn’t go away. When they began to research the history of the island, they quickly discovered a reference to King James IV, who in 1493 sent a mute woman and two young children to live there in isolation in an attempt to find out the original language mankind spoke to God.

O’Neill says: “When we started to talk to people about this, the story came back to us in different forms. One person said that the kids never made it off the island because there was a harsh winter and the boatman who brought over supplies couldn’t get across. We also started reading up about James’s rule, and discovered that he sponsored artistic, philosophical and scientific discoveries, and was well loved. He seemed like a complex and deeply feeling person, but he also sent these kids to this island – those tensions felt really interesting and ripe.”

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The phrase “the forbidden experiment” is used of language deprivation experiments, of which this is an early example, because, as Jones explains: “When you try to raise a person outside society and without language to see what is innate and what is taught, it necessitates an exploitation, a cruelty.”

Keep digging and Inchkeith yields more dark treasures. In history, it has variously featured as a quarantine island for Edinburgh’s diseased (who were left there to die), the site of a battle during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, and as a location for military manoeuvres during both world wars. In the Second World War it was a base for the counter-intelligence scheme Operation Fortitude North, which set out to convince Nazi Germany to expect an Allied counter-attack in Norway rather than Normandy.

Elements of this history will be woven into the show, in which Jones and O’Neill also play themselves as present-day theatre makers. A musical score (with overtones of “cheesy sci-fi synths”) will be played live by composer Matt Regan, and video work has been created by Colin Chaloner, recently acclaimed for his part in Junction 25’s show, I’d Rather Humble Than Hero. Jones describes the aesthetic as “retro-future… somewhere between the 1930s version of Frankenstein and a 50s or 80s B-movie with a mad professor and a laboratory that feels like a very uncomfortable place.”

“The birth of the atomic age sits very heavily on top of everything,” adds O’Neill.

The two are delighted to find that they have, inadvertently, and with a fraction of the budget, created the fourth “James play”. They were working on their project long before the National Theatre of Scotland announced Rona Munro’s trilogy, telling the stories of James I, II and III, which will debut at the Edinburgh International Festival before touring to the National Theatre in London. O’Neill grins: “That means we’re the original Star Wars, and they’re the prequels. We’re James: A New Hope!”

Jones smiles: “But we’re still waiting for our date at the Olivier.”

The Forbidden Experiment is at the Arches, Glasgow, as part of the Behaviour Festival from Tuesday to Friday, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from 1-3 May