The trouble with sport-based narratives is that, after all the sweat and tears, they only have two options – win or lose – and both have become hackneyed old tropes. Skeletally, at least, Amphibians conforms to those expectations, but it’s elevated by Steve Waters’s knack for finding an existential twist therein. Elsa and Max, the two Olympian swimmers whose careers we trace, don’t merely go through the trials of training and competition. They become specimens of superhumanity: as alien as they are human.
Everything about them is honed for purpose. Stray back hairs are shaved for streamlining; minor muscles are tweaked into abnormality; diaphragms are torturously retrained beyond reflex impulses. Theirs are precision calculated bodies: humanity become machine.
Life, for Max and Elsa, seems a means to an end: shaving a sliver of a second off their race times. Every second of life lived on land is a second of training missed. On the night before their respective Olympic races, the brief minutes to which everything has built, Max squirms out of the sex that has become their little ritual. ‘Swimming,’ he says by way of justification, ‘is what I’m designed to do.’ Not sex. Swimming.
By looking ahead to retirement, once physical peaks are reached and bodies start subsiding, Waters questions whether all this was worth it. After sacrificing ten years of youth, a few ounces of gold hardly seem recompense enough. And that’s just the winners. Silver medalists train just as hard. Indeed, Waters wonders whether it was worth anything. After all, records exist to be broken and someone will eventually swim faster. legacy (a word now burdened with thoroughly negative connotations) is no more than another notch on a chart.
So is that life a worth living? What happens, aged 24 or 30, when it’s no longer possible? What happens when, like the musty, drained pool in which Amphibians plays, you are no longer fit for purpose? Max and Elsa are faced, in another savvy metaphor, with adapting to terra firma, and Max, at least, is all at sea.
Were Waters’s narrative played straight and naturalistic, those questions would be implicit, but at best it could only satisfy, conformative as it must be. This alone could not excite. As the Olympians, Louise Ford and Sam Heughan pay attention to age, but find little by way of unique characterisation. Nevertheless, by emphasising enquiry over plot, director Cressida Brown explodes Amphibians into a sparkling set of fragmented conundrums.
To do so, Brown employs physical theatre of the Frantic Assembly variety. A crack team of Speedoed commandos, inventively and attentively choreographed by Kate Sagovsky, burst into pulsating sequences of Meyerholdian exercises. Their shoulders twirl; their hamstrings strain. Naked apart from trunks and swimcaps, they seem another species. And they breathe like a percussion section, capturing the rhythmic pulse of endlessly repeated action. A human techno soundtrack.
Add in Georgia Lowe’s gorgeous design, split over three tiers and lit beautifully by Richard Williamson, and you have an intoxicating blend of total theatre. Visual spectacle, simply constructed but full of layers, and a complex consideration of a fascinating subject make Amphibians a fringe delight.