Review by Bella Wellstead
A length of spindly vertebrae wind around the stage, cracked and corrupted. Wrenched from their riverbed resting place. A casualty of the Enlightenment. Displaced by a young man’s ferocious thirst for scientific glory. This creature is the Hydrarchos. Its weary spirit haunts its restless bones and longs for a world of deep, blue emptiness.
A man stands in the centre of a conference hall, a chorus of indignant cries haunting the exterior. The young woman who writes his speeches takes in their audience with a passive smile and searching, hungry eyes. Both desire to make a name for themselves as revolutionaries. Both are dedicated to destroying the ‘dinosaur myth’, not discouraged – rather, spurred on – by the mob of deniers that gather outside.
Hydrarchos is about the lengths one might go to for the recognition of having shaped history. The play melds the 19th-century story of dishonest archaeologist Dr. Albert Karl Koch, and a 21st-century account of conspiracy theory and radicalisation.
On entering the theatre, the eye is drawn to a motionless, sheet-covered mass in the centre of the stage. Speckled green and purple lights shine onto it, catching in the contours and giving a liveliness to – as it is later revealed to be –Hydrarchos’ pointed skull. Throughout, lighting contributes brilliantly to the mood of the play, dimly illuminating the shady scientific legacy of Dr. Koch. Low, warm spots cast long shadows on the blackened wall of the Flight Path Theatre. They allegorise the sinister power of the conspiracy theorists whilst amplifying the mysticality of Hydrarchos’ long and splintered skeleton. The skeleton itself is designed and constructed in intricate detail, inviting the light to slip into the dips and curves in the bone.
Costuming for contemporary characters typifies the various tropes into which they fit – a slim suit for the young career-conspiracy guru, a worn knit jumper for the university-student-cum-radical. Unfortunately, the colour palette for the costume worn by the female speech writer muddies the era in which this portion of the play was set. Her pale orange button-up, khaki skirt, light pink heels, and tan handbag situate her bafflingly in the early 2000s. Period costuming was brilliant, with high-waisted trousers, waistcoats, and puff-sleeved white shirts comfortably placing Koch’s scenes in the 1800s. The costume worn by Sarah Greenwood – who voiced Hydrarchos’ spirit and moved the creature’s bones – is both clever and elegant. A long, tiered skirt, loose button up shirt, and corset, all black, gracefully meld the aesthetics of the 19th century with the uninhibited motion of theatre blacks.
The choreography of Hydrarchos’ motion makes a stellar impact, beautifully capturing the fatigue of the beasts’ exhumed and mismatched bones. Sarah Greenwood lifts the skull carefully, tentatively, viscerally capturing Hydrarchos’ restless lament. She twists it to the side inquisitively, then lowers its nose in frustration. She slithers between the ribs, contorting to weakly caress the creature’s upper palate. The gravity of her performance is enhanced by her grave, rasping voice, as she reminisces on Hydrarchos’ peace in death and pleads to be returned to its place of rest.
Flynn Barnard’s performance as the fraudulent archaeologist is impressive in its unceasing joviality and friendliness. However, it is Greenwood who shines brightest. As such it is the plight of Hydrarchos – rather than that of the history-making hopefuls – that primarily captured my attention. For me, this play’s strength is in its allusions to the brutality of the Enlightenment era and its patriarchal plunder. Koch is framed as a villain without slipping into caricature. Hydrarchos brings up questions about the ethics of exploiting and altering the remains of long-dead beasts for the sake of status.
“Crack my rib. Please.”
This desire is repeated by Hydrarchos throughout. It is as though by defacing the bones, making them ugly and incomplete, Hydrarchos may finally be set free from its afterlife of scientific inquisition. The creature may finally return to the peace of its eternal resting place.