As the contest for public knowledge of scientists intensifies globally, artists are increasingly drawn to science, adopting a role of translator and communicator. This role, perhaps stemming from Clare Bishop’s observations of artists filling public service roles left by increasingly non-interventionist governments, coupled with a sharp rise in public interest in science, usually sees the artist attempting to find a form of expression that will somehow represent the data in a way conceivable to the public. Artists have individual reasons for this, not all of them about effective communication – in fact, the impossibility of the task may be precisely its attraction. That impossibility can be generative, operating as its own metaphor for the gap in public understanding between desperate scientists and a public who urgently need to know.
The Inquiline is written by a scientist, Eric Lewitus, and ostensibly attempts to represent science through the form of physical theatre. This form, operating as it does in a language both universal and elusive, is a perfect echo of this problem itself – you might say that the languages of science and physical theatre are in a way equally abstract. It presents itself as a kind of crisis, continually referring to the impossibility of communication (“can you abide misunderstandings?”), empathy and human comprehension even as it attempts those very things. The opening image of the man (solo performer Tom Monckton) naughtily toying with a mysterious object – a phallic black lamp – begins this crisis of knowledge. We are soon met with a recorded voiceover (Hayley Carmichael, in golden BBC tones), which sets up a firm narrative reality – a story about the protagonist’s forgetting of a local cinema, then seguing into ‘true love’. It’s a reality almost instantly forgotten, as the voiceover itself plunges into fragmented abstract repetitions, as if gripped by some third, controlling force.
Meanwhile, the movement (directed by Sasha Milavic Davies), is taking a similar journey through control and chaos. The hyper-disciplined, almost obsessive demands placed by Tom upon his own body border on masochism, freely alternating between forced and performing a kind of naïve freedom, to a sort of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. It’s an astounding physical performance, filled with introverted masculine frustration. Meanwhile, the sole costume of the T-shirt continually reminds the audience WHY NOT?, at once an invitation to act, and pointing to a kind of ethical void all actions are equal (or equally pointless).
The set, initially seeming as lacklustre trash, begins to take on the form of a kind of logic puzzle. Those fragments irritating text which can be caught speak of a failed collectivity, and a bleak nihilism (“it is improbable, even funny, to think that nature thinks the same way at all”). All of which speaks of an internalised violence, occasionally symbolised with direct references to suicide.
The desperation freely on display here is both shocking in its honesty, and disturbingly enough, as a portrait of the collective psychology of scientists, probably broadly accurate. Perhaps expectedly,
The Inquiline spirals downwards towards its end, a dystopia backed by Bach’s crystalline Air on G, tumbling towards a final dinner accompanied by an imaginary companion, and the final image of ironic conquest. The Inquiline points unflinchingly at the crisis of knowledge, surpassing a cry for help through its control of metaphors, into a kind of Kafkaesque darkness – as Kafka once said, “I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently to the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness”. Kafka’s self-flagellation is reflected in the scientific category of the play’s titular ‘Inquiline’– meaning a parasite who lives in the dwelling or body of another species.
Unfortunately, here, the warning may be not just one for the writer himself, but a scathing observation of our species attitude to habitation.