Fast forward five hundred years or so, and a couple of artists equally as curious as King James pick up on what remains a bizarre incident. Things become even stranger when the artists look into what happened when British troops were stationed on Inchkeith during the Second World War. A Freedom of Information request lodged with the Ministry of Defence about their own interests in language deprivation casts up some apparently startling material, which the pair determine to make public.
The result of all this is The Forbidden Experiment, the latest dramatic inquiry by performers and theatre-makers Rob Jones and Michael John O'Neill. Collectively known as Enormous Yes, Jones and O'Neill are the latest recipients of The Arches Platform 18 award, which enables and supports the production of The Forbidden Experiment as part of the centre's Behaviour festival before transferring it to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. With reference to feral children, make-believe army regiments, code-breaking and such technical linguistic terms as idioglosia and cryptophasia, the pseudo lecture structure of The Forbidden Experiment is part detective story and part historical excavation, with what sounds like some decidedly sinister discoveries.
“Inchkeith has always been strategically important,” according to O'Neill. “It was used as a place of quarantine for syphilitics and plague victims, then in the Second World War there was a fictional regiment called the British Fourth Army that was as a distraction to make the Nazis think they were going to invade Norway.”
As full of incident and colour as such findings are, they have long been in the public domain, and exactly what new ground O'Neill and Jones' FOI is breaking remains to be seen. For now, “There are elements of it I don't want to go into too much detail about,” is all O'Neill will say. “Most of it was epically boring, with stacks of stuff about shift rotations and things like that. There's stuff there as well about language research and code-breaking, and putting research into practise that has elements of a very sinister mystery.”
Jones and O'Neill formed Enormous Yes while students at Glasgow University, and, inspired by innovative American company, The T.E.A.M. (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment), elected to make what they describe as 'theatre to make wrong what once seemed right'.
“Our process has been one of going through an extensive research period,” O'Neill says, “then developing things through improvisation before I go off and write a script.”
This approach has seen Enormous Yes look at libertarian cults, both in the interactive faux seminar of #neednothing, which appeared at the Arches in 2012, and in its sequel of sorts, #sleeptightbobbycairns, which formed part of the Tron Theatre's Mayfesto season.
These were followed by Bonny Boys Are Few, a quasi auto-biographical look at the relationship between sons, fathers and surrogate fathers, which was seen both at the Arches and at the Roundhouse in London in 2013.
What unites these shows is a willingness to fuse fact, fiction and historical mythology in a playful mix of forms that never loses sight of its own artifice as the lines between what is true and what is not become blurred.
“We like to chuck fictional and real things together and see what emerges,” O'Neill explains. “I don't see us in any way as making documentaries about our researches, but are interpreting it in other ways that we hope encourages people to question narratives. On one level, Bonny Boys Are Few was autobiography, but we pulled it apart with this mix of Irish mythology and real events. We see these bits of history and myth that we've found as being ample for being pulled apart in different ways, so well as having these elements of my own life, the Spanish Armada's in there as well.”
The immediate future for Enormous Yes sees them take a reworked version of Bonny Boys Are Few to the Brighton Fringe Festival this coming May. Beyond this, O'Neill, a graduate of both the National Theatre of Scotland's Auteurs scheme and the Traverse 50 new writing initiative, expresses a desire to write something “a bit less mad, something more tightly genre-based.”
In the meantime, four people will appear in The Forbidden Experiment, including dancer and choreographer Zosia Jo, while Jones and O'Neill will play versions of themselves.
“There's lots of collapsing of history in the show,” O'Neill says, “and mine and Rob's journey to getting the FOI becomes integral to things. Characters are paired off through history, and the one thing they all have in common is that they've all lost something and are trying to get it back.
Given the nature of The Forbidden Experiment, one can imagine some concerned overtures from the MOD might have been forthcoming. As it turns out, a surprising radio silence has been the order of the day.
“I've not got any sense that they care,” O'Neill says of the MOD. “If it looked like the play was doing anything that they didn't like then they might, but I suspect they have a lot of bigger scandals to deal with than an investigation into one that happened in the 1940s.”
The Forbidden Experiment, The Arches, Glasgow, April 22-25; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, May 1-3
Inchkeith – A Wondrous Place
Inchkeith, in the Firth of Forth, and which is part of Fife, has had a colourful history, which is known to date back to the twelfth century, when people had to cross the river by boat.
In the fourteenth century, Inchkeith was repeatedly attacked by English raiders during the Scottish wars of independence.
In 1493, King James 1V directed that a mute woman and two infants be transported to the island in order to discover which language the infants would grow up to speak isolated from the rest of the world.
In 1589, Inchkeith was used to quarantine the passengers of a plague ridden ship. More plague sufferers came here from the mainland in 1609, while n 1799, Russian sailors who had died of an infectious disease were buried here.
In 1547, the earl of Somerset garrisoned Inchkeith, and built a fort on the site of the present day lighthouse. The garrison was later ejected from the island by a combined Franco-Scottish force.
In the eighteenth century, a now uninhabited Inchkeith was visited by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson.
In 1803, construction began on the Inchkeith Lighthouse, which became operational the following year.
In 1878, construction began on three forts on Inchkeith, and in 1899, a foghorn was installed.
In 1915 during the First World War, HMS Britannia ran aground at Inchkeith.
In 1944, Operatioin Fortitude North was an elaborate plan used to deceive the German army into thinking that the British army was about to invade Norway, with a fictional regiment decamped to Inchkeith.
Following the Second World War, Inchkeith was worked as farmland, and in 1986, the Northern Lighhouse Board sold the island to millionaire philanthropist Sir Tom Farmer.
The Herald, April 15th 2014