“My thoughts are whirled like a potter’s wheel”: I know not where I am, nor what I do”
Henry VI part 1, Act 1, Scene 5
Two men killing time whilst waiting for something that might never happen. Remind you of anything…? Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins’ new play Nice Fish shares many similarities with Waiting for Godot, but far outstrips even Beckett in its absurdity. So absurd is the script, in fact, that it seems like it really belongs at a fringe or off-West End theatre, rather than being a Broadway-to-West-End transfer. The Harold Pinter Theatre feels an odd location, something based entirely on Rylance’s reputation rather than anything about the specific production. To be fair, I only booked to see the show because of Sir Mark; plays about ice fishing in Minnesota don’t tend to be my usual fare…
The set, however, is an immediate assuager of doubts. The stage is an ice-field, perspective given by a tiny road in the distance, with the lights of cars and trains speeding past miniature electricity pylons. An automated doll picks at the ice next to a tiny house – and then in an instant the lights black out creating one of the darkest darknesses I’ve ever experienced.
The kind that makes you almost have to shut your eyes because it’s so overwhelming. When the lights come up again the doll has become a real life person. It’s an early warning of the crazy perspective shifts to come.
At first it appears to be a straight-forward two-hander. Jim Lichtscheidl plays straight-man Erik to Rylance’s rather more ridiculous Ron, the kind of person who, during the first moments of the play, manages to drop his mobile through an ice hole into the freezing lake below. A big pro for this play was that, within ten minutes of it starting, I heard my mum laugh out loud at a joke. (It was about walking into multiple rooms and forgetting R why you were there. Classic mum-joke fare). This is generally rare. It’s not that she doesn’t find things funny, she just doesn’t actually lol. As it were. So well done Mark Rylance for that. To be perfectly honest I would watch him read the Yellow Pages (if they still exist…?) He brings a sense of immediacy to a performance that few other actors can pull off, and it is put to great effect in this production. He is allowed to roam the stage, play with audience reactions, even play with one of those singing fish you put on your wall. loved this bit so much, we used to have one of those in my house when I was little.
At first, we get quite a few interspersed scenes between the odd couple, poetic reflections scattered among the more classic time-killing interchanges between the two. I personally find reminiscing monologues as a concept to be a little tiresome, and a bit short-handy, but the language during these sections rhythmic enough to work a kind of spell over the audience, even if you don’t listen to exactly what everyone is saying all the time. The more comedic sections are the real charm of the play, however. Ron pretending to be a snowman is a great sequence. Then, unexpectedly, other characters start to arrive. Bob Davis appears briefly as an officious DNR man, followed by Raye Birk and an Ariel-like Kayli Carter as grandfather and precocious granddaughter who own a sauna in the middle of the frozen lake. With their arrival the oddities which have occurred so far start to build and build until next thing you know they’ve all disappeared in a snowstorm/hurricane, and Davis’ head pops like a seal out of an ice hole clutching Ron’s lost phone in his hand.
From then on the absurdity only increases. **SPOILERS for the end coming up (not in terms of plot, just in terms of design)** Lichtscheidl and Rylance strip off their thick coats and scarves to reveal businessmen suits – they must be sweating like pigs under those stage lights wow – and then almost immediately take those off to uncover yet another costume change, with Lichtscheidl as an old man, and Rylance as his elderly wife, hobbling about the stage and complaining about life as if it was a movie they didn’t understand (that’s not me being poetic, that’s literally the concept). This was one of my favourite scenes. By this time you’ve just accepted and embraced the ridiculousness, and when two massive fish hooks descend from the ceiling and reel Rylance and Lichtscheidl’s confused OAPs up into the sky it’s a fittingly hilarious ending to a baffling but enjoyable evening.
Where the production falls down, I think, is the middle section. Although director Claire van Kampen does her best to keep providing newly interesting scene changes, tents that fly away, new weather conditions, there are definitely moments where you wonder if this play has any point at all, especially during any particularly poetic reminiscing scenes. And not in a “wow, the point is that it has no point” way, like we get by the end, but in a “who knew ninety minutes could be this long” way. Still, this is only a brief feeling, and it is soon made clear that the bemusement is purposeful. This is a play I certainly won’t forget seeing, and I’m so glad I went to see, because it’s really not something I’d usually book to see. Go and see it for an entertaining, bewildering (and short!) night of theatre – and remember, if you turn up in a fish or fisherman costume you get a free box!*
Nice Fish at the Harold Pinter Theatre: 3.5/5 stars
*sadly no one did this when we were there, and I didn’t have the guts to do it myself.