Saturday, November 07, 2009

Theatre Review: Primavera presents Origin of the Species

Origin of the Species
Written by Bryony Lavery

Arcola Theatre, London
until November 21st 2009

Reviewed by Richard Canning


This is a seriously entertaining revival of a most intelligent and witty play. An early work of lesbian playwright Bryony Lavery, it’s a two-hander about Darwin’s theory of evolution, as the title suggests. This production, ably directed by Tom Littler and featuring excellent performances by Marjorie Yates as Molly and Clare-Hope Ashitey as Victoria, is thus also a timely treat, given the plethora of commemorations attending the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

The drama draws on the true story of Louis and Mary Leakey’s pioneering 1950s and 60s anthropological research into the Olduvai Gorge region of Tanzania, the so-called ‘cradle of mankind’, named for the prehistoric human remains uncovered there. Its ‘homo habilis’ is a precursor of homo erectus, who in turn morphed into our present-day species, ‘homo sapiens’. Lavery has Molly, a bluff, elderly Yorkshirewoman, recounting her time joining the Leakey digs, from which she has brought back several skulls, as well as (and at this point the plot slightly awkwardly abandons all verisimilitude for fantasy) a complete skeleton, which reconstitutes itself as a wild young black woman, speechless embodiment of this earliest form of man. Molly names her “Victoria” – after her grandmother, though, naturally, there are colonial cadences too – and befriends the young woman (though there’s no hint of anything more than friendship and kinship), schooling her in the English language (which proves relatively straightforward) and native customs and perceptions (much trickier).

The challenge must be – within this poignant, fundamentally comic scenario – to avoid the semblance of colonialist instruction detracting from the true lessons emerging from the couple’s exchanges, which are colour-neutral. Clearly, given the play’s intentionally absurd premise, it may seem churlish to insist on the dangers of interpreting Molly’s often patronising tutelage too literally, and in colour- and culturally-sensitive terms. Generally, the play steers a sensitive course through this problem. But there are moments where it struggles to provide an oppositional voice to Molly’s articulation of how the “primitive” in front of her might, and indeed will, develop into a fully-fledged homo sapiens; a near insurmountable difficulty, given Victoria’s struggle to master speech. There is one moment, though, in the first half, where she inadvertently trumps Molly’s ready cultural assumptions. A few more such rhetorical reversals would have strengthened the play’s fundamental determination to question “civilised values” in the round.

Bryony Lavery

The other chief way in which the play suggests that mankind’s evolution has not been the straightforward flight towards achievement and liberty comes in its striking final moments. Molly celebrates the arrival of the New Year, and, given that the play has been conceived around the idea of the entire history of Earth being mapped onto a single year, wonders whether mankind can survive after the clocks strike. “Mankind”, of course, is itself a provocative term, given the play’s other prominent theme: the male-centred nature of recorded human history, anthropological and otherwise. Molly concedes that, when she first uncovered Victoria, she had been looking for a man, specifically, not a woman; yet her delight in her ward causes her to question all manner of man-dominant ideas. Her education, she reveals, had been entirely devoted to the mantra: “man – him - his”. Victoria counters by revealing that it had been woman who first learnt how to take and use fire – a critical moment, obviously, in the development of the species - not man, as is traditionally recorded in myth.

The man-bashing is sometimes a little unabashed, or at least somewhat “period” in feel, and one senses that the playwright might have longed to push the Molly-Victoria relationship further, since, as it stands, the role played by sexual instinct in mankind’s development, isn’t glanced at. Still, Origin of the Species remains a witty, smart treatment of some complex ideas. The commendable production at the Arcola feels fully evolved.


Richard Canning is a writer and academic, based in London. His latest book is the edited collection Fifty Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read (Alyson, 2009).

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