Last Tuesday I had the pleasure of attending a production of the play Dinomania, produced by the Kandinsky theatre company at the New Diorama Theatre, courtesy of Felix Arts.
Dinomania is a production focused on the life of Gideon Mantell, a figure at the centre of the scientific movement that sprouted up after the enlightenment of the 19th Century. We begin with Mantell (Janet Etuk) moving through his childhood, where a Tess of the D’Urbervilles character motivation is implanted within him- his family allegedly came to England with Billy the Conqueror. Mantell arrives at the end of his childhood to become a doctor, a job which emotionally exhausts him, but through which he is fortunate enough to meet his wife. They establish a mutual connection based on an interest in fossils. Were he in a modern dementia ward, he would be quite content to remain a doctor, but alas, he begins to explore the countryside and discovers something crucial: the Iguanodon. The repeated attempts of Mantell to get his discovery recognised by the rest of the scientific community are eventually rewarded, and he becomes somewhat of a minor celebrity.
It is at this point that the play begins to lose its focus on the budding palaeontologist. We are provided with a rather wonderful summary of the scientific debate on the age of the earth. Each of the four actors (Etuk joined by Hamish MacDougall, Sophie Steer and Harriet Webb) play a wide variety of roles ranging from Archbishop Usher, the man that posited the age of the earth at 6000 years, to the villainous Baron Cuvier, a museum owner in Paris, to Richard Owen, Mantell’s arch-nemesis. Musical interludes of, “Blasphemy!” and other such methods provided sufficient comedic effect to prevent this otherwise dry scientific debate from being too dull.
Following this, we move into the conclusion of the play. Mantell is revealed to have been broken by his efforts to become a successful palaeontologist. His wife has left him and he has been forced to sell his collection of fossils. He has been crippled in a coach accident, and his enemy Richard Owen approaches him, demanding the last of Mantell’s fossils to defeat the growing anti-creationist movement. With great reluctance, Mantell hands it over, and Owens uses it to argue convincingly against the progressivists. At the same time he rejects Mantell and his work, claiming the credit for himself.
The final 10 minutes of the play felt rather like the process of fossilisation - long and crushing. Richard Owen delivers a long monologue to the audience in the style of a Royal Society speech concerning his subsequent achievements at the expense of Mantell and his descent into irrelevance. They rather hammer home the metaphor of the rise and fall of great men due to their own hubris with all the subtlety of a punch in the face. The monologue was delivered with great emotion in front of a fan. I’m unsure if the cast were aware of the irony. The staging I found wonderful. It was arranged in the following manner - a raised platform in the centre dominated most of the stage with spacing all the way around it. This allowed for action to be concentrated in the centre whilst those of the cast not involved were able to provide commentary and musical additions from the sides, like a musical chorus. This combined with the addition of the piano in centre stage, allowed for the fluid motion between scenes that involved entirely different characters with clarity and alacrity. The music provided by the highly capable Zac Gvirtzman was highly welcome and allowed for the mood of each scene to be quickly and easily established.
A further factor I found fascinating was the use of props. The cast were capable of rendering a bag a patient’s body, a scrap of paper an ammonite. The use of guns, fired at those scientists whose arguments were defeated on the floor of the “Royal Society,” I particularly enjoyed.
Overall, I think this is the first time I have ever been grateful that Felix Arts holds such dominion over the Newspaper. I had an excellent evening, and despite what I believe to be some structural flaws in the arranging of the script and some slight overindulgence I thought the acting was solid, the play mostly amusing, and the story interesting.