Origin of The Species at The Arcola

ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES

Bryony Lavery’s unique voice rings out clearly in this richly feminine exploration into the origin of the species. A fantastical hybrid of past, present and future, her two protagonists, Molly and Victoria, meet in extraordinary circumstances and form a bond which spans mother and daughter, teacher and pupil, ancestor and progeny. Lavery’s piece succeeds magnificently in giving a tangible sense of the immense expanse of time with which these two women are separated whilst also highlighting the threads which make up humanity, unchanging from our inception to now.

In a small house in Yorkshire Molly reads from her diary of ‘Baby Earth’, the first few pages are blank and then life forms appear and so on as each page is turned and God’s 7 days are revealed. But as we reach the full glory of creation instead of resting, as our male god did, Molly then explains (with some artfully placed layer cake) about the place where she experienced her first dig. This is the place where she went looking for a man, and found a Victoria. Victoria is a Homo habilis, a predecessor of Homo erectus and the trick to it is that Victoria is alive.

Marjorie Yates is formidable as Molly whose gravelly tone both welcomes and slightly intimidates. Her performance has as many layers and depths of complex potential as The Olduvai Gorge which begins our adventure. Clare-Hope Ashitey’s Victoria is a delightful child whose eyes absorb everything as though it were the first time she’d seen it, only then to recognize each item with the heart of an original primate. And in the face of these effortless performances Tom Littler’s greatest achievement is in the relationship between them. Yates and Ashitey may come from different worlds, but their implicit fondness is palpable. As are their similarities as strong women; woman the great inventor, woman the great discoverer.

If scientific discovery gives the impression of expunging of emotion and dealing simply with the facts, Lavery’s piece takes a much more atmospheric exploration. Choosing to ignore the direct penetration of obvious and direct male probing, her text instead plants seed of inquiry which slowly blossom and are absorbed via a strange sort of artistic osmosis. Seen this way Charles Darwin’s Origin of The Species is a decisive sculpture cutting through the air and Lavery’s is a landscape painting; she is uninterested in changing an environment, only embracing it. This softer way of dealing with the world asks a lot of an audience used to immediate gratification from moment to moment. But the pay off is worth it. In the last moments when Molly potently describes man’s need to unpick the complexities of the world and rebuild it, I have never felt more sadness for our drive to know at the expense of all cost. But as she sits in silence to the ringing of New Year’s bells and a new year in her ‘Baby Earth’ rolls in, her smile ignites a glimmer of powerful hope, even in the face of our races’ ultimate fallibility.

Runs until Saturday 21 November

Originally Published for The Public Reviews

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