Archimedes’ Principle is a recent (2012) play from the young(ish) Catalan playwright and director Joseph Maria Miro i Coromina. The principle in question concerns displacement – a floating object displaces its own weight in water. Just how that applies here, and the reason for the title, remains opaque.
The play itself is chaotic. It flits from aspect to aspect without staying to tease out the implications in any intellectually satisfying way.
We are in a municipal baths. A couple of benches, some lockers, a lifebelt, rotas on a notice board. On the soundtrack, in the blackout, someone dives or is thrown into water. Two young swimming instructors bring in the kids’ swimming equipment. The baths’ manager, Anna, arrives: ‘What happened with Andy?’ And we’re into the action.
Brandon, a genial great lunkhead, is faced with a six-year-old terrified of water. Rather too neatly, it mirrors his own childhood when his father dealt with his crisis of courage by chucking him in the water. Haunted by this, he cuddles the boy and kisses him to give him reassurance. It works. The boy gets in the pool. The only problem is that he may have kissed the boy on the lips, at least this is what a small girl is prepared to swear she saw. Anna is left with the problem of finding out what really happened, and fending off a parent who has never shown much interest in his child now going frantic at the thought that a paedophile might be teaching his son. A campaign grows via the parents’ Facebook page, and we are left with the three swimming bath workers facing an apocalyptic ending at the hands of the parents.
‘Inappropriate behaviour’. Weasel words. Cuddling the child is it seems entirely appropriate; so too is kissing on the cheek – there is a fleeting suggestion that it is more appropriate for a woman to kiss a male child than for a man, and we never entirely get away from the old association of homosexuality and child molestation, protests of ‘I’m not homophobic’ notwithstanding. So Brandon would have ‘got away with it’ if he had been a different sex, and puckered his lips 2 or 3 inches to the right. And if he hadn’t been so cute, maybe. There is a suggestion that he finds it difficult to cope with the older kids coming on to him, and that jealousy may be at work.
Plenty of big meaty themes, then. And the play is good on the kind of chaotic panic which rises when the dread ‘P’ word rears its head. It interestingly suggests that paranoia makes parents as much victims as anyone else – never daring to relax with their child in the presence of strangers. But the play itself is chaotic. It flits from aspect to aspect without staying to tease out the implications in any intellectually satisfying way. In its dwelling on the fear of strangers and those we don’t know well, for example, it never mentions either that the majority of child abuse takes place in families, or suggests as it could so easily that our fears are creating precisely the kind of withdrawn and sociopathic children who are scared of water or any other adventure.
The programme suggests that we are in some kind of trial situation. “Listen to the evidence and decide for yourself.” The evidence is thin and incoherent. Brandon doesn’t help his own case by habitually smoking in the changing room and then lying about it, but that’s a long way from saying he must be lying about the boy Andy. What the play desperately lacks is a structure.
I kept thinking to myself, ‘Doesn’t this council run CRB checks? Doesn’t it have complaints procedures?’ Anna does no investigation at all, she merely clutches her arm in rather stagey angst. Lee Knight as Brandon is similarly rather actorish, and certainly too adult and considered to make a convincing overgrown puppy, difficult to engage with emotionally. Neither of them are helped by a stilted translation – “Now it’s me that doesn’t know where you want to go with this” – and a style of direction which freights every line with heavy significance by placing a thumping great pause before and after.
A good play about paedophilia with a cool head and a warm heart would be very welcome at this time. This is not the play. It sits like a rabbit trapped in the headlights of the subject. Instead of daring to go anywhere near truly disconcerting and challenging its audience, it can only wring its hands and say, ‘Isn’t it awful?’ And yes, it is.