Transferring to London from a sold-out season in New York, Nice Fish sets a high precedent for itself. Written by Academy Award winner and ex-artistic director of the Globe Mark Rylance alongside Minnesotan contemporary prose poet Louis Jenkins, Nice Fish is based off Rylance’s life growing up in the freezing American Midwest, and for the most part, features two friends out on an ice-fishing trip musing about life.
From its very outset, Nice Fish places you in a surreal, otherworldly setting in the middle of a frozen Minnesota lake. There’s an ethereal beauty about Todd Rosenthal’s set: a slanted white iceberg onstage, with soft, shimmering daylight in the backdrop. We see a set of miniature trees and puppets fishing in ice-holes, almost pastoral before we jump straight into the middle of a conversation between the over the top, offensively orange clad Ron (Rylance) and the more sombre Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl).
The two make up an odd couple, yet at the same time, oddly ordinary. As Erik waits for fish to bite, he compares the artificial looking paint of the lure to women working their charms, while Ron, by far the less serious of the two, reminisces about his childhood, making a simple baloney sandwich while taking a bite right smack in the middle of it, creating a hole he uses as a viewfinder, supposedly looking at the world through a different pair of (possibly childhood) eyes. At one point, Ron even pulls an animatronic fish out of their bait and tackle box, teasing Erik with it, much to his disdain. The actions are non-sequitur, and completely unlikely for a fishing trip, yet, they’re strangely funny because of their preposterous context, and because of Rylance’s complete commitment to being the oblivious funnyman, playing off Lichtscheidl’s straight man act. If there’s a method to the madness, it’s that there’s a stark sense of emptiness that hangs in the air, whether its from the harsh weather or the friends’ internal struggles, and it’s all Ron can do to distract the two from the crushing silence and blustery winds.
As with most absurdist plays, the characters in Nice Fish don’t do much, rather, things happen to them. As the play goes on, circumstances seem to trap the two in this surreal icy land more and more. Ron’s phone slips from his hand into the fishing hole, and then midway through the play, a huge windstorm whips up, blowing the two away and encountering the owner of a sauna (Kayli Carter) and her frosty grandfather (Raye Birk). More conversations follow about life, time and the metaphor of fishing, before things start to get really weird. The fourth wall is broken, the characters begin making statements that suggest self-awareness of being part of a play, and of all things, the play begins to really make sense. It’s never revealed if the sauna owner and her grandfather are real people, or mere figments of Ron and Eriks’ imaginations, but what they offer in their appearance is an alternative view to the otherwise bleak approach to life Erik has mostly been going about for much of the play. The sauna owner sees the colour of people’s auras and wears bright green dresses, and her grandfather tells Erik to pep talk his lure before lowering it into the fishing hole. It’s almost like an escape within the escape of fishing, taking it to new absurd heights.
By the time you reach the completely unexpected conclusion, where Erik and Ron finally leave the ice only to perform a sequence that defies logic, time and space, and discover just what the titular ‘Nice Fish’ is, it’s still hard to say exactly what the play is about. At times, it seems that the point of fishing is to find meaning in life again after being left devastated, at others, it’s a nostalgic pining for time gone by, and sometimes, might even be about performance and losing one’s self in portraying another face.
And perhaps that is the beauty of absurdist drama – that for all its weirdness, there’ll come a point where something just clicks, and the smallest and strangest of observations just makes all the sense in the world. Nice Fish is one of those plays where just about anyone can and probably will draw meaning from its esoteric script, and I walked away from the theatre with a slightly altered outlook on life and all its shortcomings; sometimes it’s all you can do to live in the moment and enjoy the now, and the sheer joy and inability to describe a good catch as simply a “nice fish”.
Nice Fish plays at the Harold Pinter Theatre till 11 Feb 2017, tickets available here or via the TodayTix App. If you go dressed as a fish or fisherman at 1pm (matinee)/5pm (night), you can score yourself a complimentary ticket in a private box (first come first serve).
*Catch of the day* Exclusive offer available to our viewers. You Have now access to tickets at 42% off using the following link:
http://www.cheaptheatretickets.com/nice-fish/ (WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!)
Photo Credit: American Repertory Theatre