Reviewed by Anthony Brook
Dinomania is a most unusual and powerful theatrical performance. It begins with a flourish and remains relentlessly fast-paced for the next 80 minutes, without a pause, to a grand finale. You are transfixed by the drama unfolding before you, enacted by a small cast, in the manner and style of Ancient Greece; you are transported back in time to a time when the world was so much simpler to explain, by religious orthodoxy, until geologists came along to cause major controversies. It is a powerful dramatisation of the personalities and ideas battling for supremacy in the first half of the 19th century, a time of iconoclastic ideas and elephantine egos. In that chaotic situation, someone was going to get hurt!
Although this piece of theatre portrays the tumult caused by palaeontological discoveries of the time, it focuses on just one man, the great Sussex geological pioneer, Gideon Mantell (1790-1852), whose brave but ultimately futile effort to use his discovery of Iguanodon to join the scientific elite and Society came to nought in the end. Despite always proclaiming scientific priority over Iguanodon, and being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1825, he was still considered only ‘a country doctor and a cobbler’s son, who should leave such matters to the learned men of Society’. As is always the case, personal relationships matter enormously: although Mantell had the long-term friendship of Charles Lyell, he faced the bitter rivalry, frontal antagonism and societal dominance of Richard Owen, an oleaginous man with a razor-sharp mind, who discredited his discoveries and did his level best to appropriate his achievements. Owen coined the term dinosaur in 1841 and later established the Natural History Museum, so would seemed to have triumphed, but Mantell is still remembered as the man whose fossil discoveries in the Weald revealed fauna and flora from a Time far beyond the conceptualisation of contemporaries. ‘Deep Time’ gave plenty of time for the evolution and extinction of species, issues which had troubled ‘natural philosophers’ for many decades, leading in due course to Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859.
All the main personages of that period are portrayed, presenting evidence and arguing their case—-Ussher, Lamarck, Cuvier, Parkinson, Buckland and, of course, Owen, as well as those more directly involved in Mantell’s life—his father, Thomas, and his long-suffering wife, Mary Ann, who supports him admirably at first, but eventually finds his obsession with fossils too much to bear and walks out of the marital home, a very brave decision in those days. Mantell’s life bears all the hallmarks of a Shakespearian ‘Tragedy’–early success, reaching for the stars, downfall by bad decision-making and crushed by the turn of events.
Most of Dinomania is factually accurate, but ‘some of the scenes might not stand up to forensic historical scrutiny,’ admitted Lauren Mooney, co-writer/producer, ‘but it is intended as a creative adaptation, with a series of wider themes, such as who controls scientific progress.’ In that respect, it should be observed that Science, like History, is always open to re-interpretation as Time goes by; and that Geologists are only people with a particular ‘focussed curiosity’, subject to all the emotional frailties of humankind.
The acting was strong and powerful; the setting and props minimal; and the sound effects provided by a pianist on stage. The actors each played several roles in the course of the play, always in view and changing character by their language, voice, pose and actions: character changes were rapid, recognisable and yet convincing—a tribute the their thespian skills. Foreknowledge of people, places and events helped but was not really necessary. It was a truly exciting theatrical experience, which left everyone in the audience overwhelmed.
Dinomania was performed at the New Diorama Theatre, Regent’s Place, London from 19 February until 23 March 2019: A Show about scientific endeavour, bitter rivalry and terrible lizards, by the Kandinsky theatre company
More by Antony Brook on Mantell’s life and works here Momento Mori