by Mark Rylance & Louis Jenkins
Harold Pinter Theatre, London
Saturday 3rd December 2016, matinee 14.30
90 mins, no interval
Director: Claire van Kampen
Set: Todd Rosenthal
Costume: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting: Japhy Weideman
Sound: Scott W. Edwards
Original Music: Claire van Kampen
Raye Birk – grandfather, Wayne Johnson
Kayli Carter – a girl
Bob Davis – park ranger
Jim Lichtscheidl – Erik Johnson
Mark Rylance – Ron
Mohsen Nouri – lead puppeteer
Mark Rylance (Ron) and Jim Lichtscheidl (Erik)
We have theatre programmes in drawers, boxes and on shelves dating back to 1971. This is why I was distraught to discover that my Nice Fish programme had slipped, unread as yet, out of my bag and remained on the floor of the Harold Pinter Theatre when we left (Row L Stalls, if anyone has it!) So this is a review without a programme. I’ve just ordered the playscript on amazon (and will amend this when it arrives).
Nice Fish was co-written by Mark Rylance, based on Louis Jenkins prose poems, with improvisation work in rehearsal. It reflects back to a Minnesota location, and that’s where Mark Rylance went to school and Louis Jenkins lives.
There are two men on a frozen lake ice fishing through holes, talking about this that and nothing in particular, much of it odd rambling, but very funny. An authority figure (a Park Ranger) turns up in this wilderness. A younger character then turns up. Late in the play a tree appears, though here it’s an electric palm tree lit up in green and yellow LEDs. It’s no wonder that Michael Billington in the Guardian retitled it “Waiting for Codot.” Then again a girl appears after a hurricane, reminding me (if no one else) of Wizard of Oz. Another theatrical reference is Lear (Erik) and his fool (Ron) in the wilderness.
When I was first getting enthused with theatre, my interests were Max Frisch, Samuel Beckett, Peter Barnes, Jean Cocteau, John Antrobus. Nowadays we don’t get a lot of theatre of the absurd here in Dorset and Hampshire, and when we travel to London, it’s to bigger productions rather than fringe. It’s a few years since I saw Waiting for Godot last at Bath, though I have done lights on it many times. I found Nice Fish a totally refreshing and innovative bolt from the blue.
Waiting for the start (an unusual five minutes closed doors, lights on wait for a London theatre) I was thinking about the play’s Broadway success earlier in the year, and noting the Broadway template. A single, very elaborate set. A major star name. Most of the action two people talking. Two or three other lesser characters. Then add the risk of a playwright acting in their own play, which few have dared since Noel Coward went. And it’s directed by his partner, Claire van Kampen. I was not prepared for what was to follow.
What I’m NOT going to do is here is reveal the best lines and surprising events. There was a great deal of laughter throughout. Another review revealed far too much of that, which I read on my phone while I was waiting, so it undermined the impact. No plot spoilers.
There is some activity in the wait, and maybe we need the time to gaze at the set, an inclined chunk of ice with a jagged edge facing us. In the far background we see a line of tiny bare trees in perspective. A building. An electric train passes across that far background in scale. A perspective scaled small puppet fisherman is in view over an ice hole, moving around. It will be one of the best set designs this year, and one of the best lighting plots too. The landscape has a starring role. The huge empty pale blue sky will later shift to pink, to jaundiced yellow, to night sky with stars. When the girl arrives (not “the boy” as in Godot), her hut with sauna appears, and once she drifts out of the front stage dialogue, a realistic tiny perspective distanced puppet representation of her can be seen on a sofa, moving around, reading Moby Dick.
The play uses more sudden blackouts than any I’ve seen. During the blackouts the characters move and are in different positions / tableaux when the lights go up. How they make such major positional shifts on an open stage in total blackness, I do not know. There must be some trick to guide them. Some scenes are ten minutes, others are ten seconds.
So to our Vladimir and Estragon. Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) and Ron (Mark Rylance) are out ice-fishing. We work out that Erik is an ex- and mildly disgruntled postal worker of Swedish-American stock. Ron has come along for the ice fishing, but doesn’t know anything about it.
It gives free rein to Rylance’s trademark and always engaging and funny stammering speech and bewildered style. Much bewilders Ron, yet he is a gentle soul. At times, Ron bores the solemn Erik to distraction. Ron has a long monologue about people who Erik has never met and their detailed food preferences and allergies … a bit like my mother’s conversation at times, about the woman she worked with neighbour’s niece’s baby daughter. People were laughing all the way through, there are some marvelous monologues. Rylance’s comic timing, and ability to weight a funny line is the best in the business. His onstage belches were so propulsive that I believed I could smell them, though in Row L I admit that is unlikely. His best belches since La Bête in 2010.
Michael Billington in The Guardian says of Rylance:
Rylance, physically clowning and vocally dextrous, creates a sense of intimacy, doing things no other actor would dare: he begins with his back to the audience; he spends minutes standing with his eyes closed. His voice is incantatory, suspended between grief and joy.
Garrison Keillor’s radio tales, also set in Minnesota must have been a partial inspiration. Erik’s tale of his visit to the old country, delivered deadpan, is so close to Garrison Keillor that I almost thought I’d heard it and the punchline before … I have a shelf full of Garrison Keillor, unfortunately all on cassette. Except Erik goes to Sweden, Keillor’s characters would have gone to Norway.
The run of blackouts constantly reveal new situations among what must be a tedious and monotonous hobby, staring at a hole in the ice. The park ranger (Bob Davis) arrives with a list of regulations … that is an extremely funny section of dialogue that I won’t spoil. I’ve met some “Little Hitler” park rangers in the USA, or rather “big fat Hitler” park rangers … the 1930s style uniform doesn’t help … and the text captures the officiousness perfectly.
Ron makes a snowman. There’s a storm (partly conducted in tableaux), a tent gets put up and collapses, a girl (Kayli Carter) arrives, she retreats to her sauna. Grandad (Raye Birk) arrives, and turns out to be the Wayne Johnson the park ranger was looking for. He stands with his illegal spear in hand, the figure of Neptune. The ranger reappears in a most bizarre way, and we are now definitely in the realm of the absurd. Stage hands appear and start clearing stuff. The girl and granddad appear in an audience box next to the stage. A huge fish gets caught, which leads into a tale of Erik’s life seen in the light of the fish trophy.
Yes, it sounds disjointed, and the blackouts make it staccato, but the text holds everything together. It’s life, the universe and everything. Rylance has described it:
“it’s like an old American quilt of worn beloved garments, each one bearing a pattern of history, an experience … what is this play about? I don’t know.”
The situation morphs, Erik and Ron become other characters, like people role-playing the ice-fishing, perhaps at a business convention … then genders blur, into an old married couple, Rylance as the wife, in salmon-pink petticoat (of course Rylance does superb women).
Then Rylance and Lichtscheidl wander off in geriatric mode, as if quoting the audience, There was no plot / I didn’t get it / Things just kept coming at me. / Most of the time I was confused. All true, but magically confused in our case.
At the end two giant fishing lures descend, and whisk them upwards out of our sight … incidentally the actors gripped them, there were no safety wires. I’d be scared to hold my own weight that far above a stage in the dark that fell.
We were still talking about the play in detail five hours later. It had a dreamlike quality … A midwinter’s night’s dream? Was the time scale a day? Or was it a lifetime? Was it two old friends on the ice, or the lifetime of a marriage? We have seen a lot of care homes this year, and found the ending genuinely moving, and felt transported. I don’t need to “understand it” anymore than I need to analyze the lyrics of a much-loved and moving song.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
The newspapers compete shamelessly for those fishing similes Mark Rylance Reels Them In / Heart & Sole / Some will carp / Salmon leaps from scene to scene / The play is about a Fisherman’s Friend etc
Paul Taylor, The Independent ****
Susannah Clap, The Observer ****
Michael Billington, Guardian ***
Domenic Cavendish, Telegraph ***
Christopher Hart, Sunday Times ***
Nick Wells, Radio Times ***
In The Telegraph Domenic Cavendish called it Much Ado About Nothing On Ice. Reasonable at first reading, as in the play itself, nothing much happens, but there is a bitchy reference in there to Mark Rylance’s disastrous Old Vic production of Much Ado About Nothing where James Earl Jones had passed an age point between functioning theatre actor and no longer capable in the year between casting concept and production. Unfair, I thought.
I also can’t see why Messrs Billington & Cavendish gave The Tempest and King Lear four stars, praised this in reviews, yet gave it three. OK, it was short. It lacked plot, but as innovative theatre we thought it better than either.
MARK RYLANCE ON THIS BLOG:
Farinelli & The King, by Claire Van Kampen, Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015
Richard III – Apollo 2012 Mark Rylance as Richard III
Twelfth Night – Apollo 2012 Mark Rylance as Olivia
Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, West End
La Bête by David Hirson, West End, 2010