Nice Fish at The Harold Pinter Theatre
Written by Louis Jenkins and Mark Rylance
Directed by Claire Van Kampen
Cast: Mark Rylance, Ron; Jim Litchtscheidl, Erik; Kayli Carter, Flo; Raye Birk, Wayne; Bob Davis, The DNR Man; with puppeteer Mohsen Nouri.
So I Saw… Nice Fish
Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins have collaboratively trawled the latter’s prose-poetry, angling themselves a wonderfully inventive play: Nice Fish. We meet Ron (Rylance) and Erik (Jim Litchtscheidl) standing on a frozen lake in Northern Minnesota; a thick white ice-sheet covers the stage, which they are busily drilling holes in with hand-cranked augers. They wear the latest cold-weather gear (Ron’s far more brightly coloured than Erik’s; the orange fluorescence of his high-vis garb comically suggesting his ineptitude in comparison to his friend’s experience). Modern fishing equipment is littered about them: boxes of tackle, bait and lures; a plastic sled-full of fold-out chairs and a pop-up tent; and (although audience members might not recognise it without the help of the program, that contains a detailed article entitled ‘An Introduction to Ice Fishing’ by the aptly named Mark Fisher) an underwater camera. It’s as if we’ve just happened upon them setting up; the feel is highly naturalistic. Ron even has his back to the audience.
But despite these realist appearances, the absurd and wonderful whimsy of this play is hardly bubbling under the surface. Indeed, it sits atop the ice-sheet in the form of a tiny fishing hut, which is – with the fishing gear – set against a line of miniature trees running along the back of the stage (giving the illusion of a huge amount of space between the shore line and where we are situated – looking onto the ice-sheet stretching out from the shore). From time to time, a train moves jerkily along a track running through the trees. It looks simultaneously real and toylike – expressive of vast distance yet clearly unreal: like something from an Aardman-made stop-motion animation film. As the audience took their seats before the play even began, this mini fishing hut glowed with a light from within – presumably left on by its (assumed) occupant, the tiny puppet fisherman standing outside. As the auditorium’s lights dim, a voice tells us (from nowhere):
‘Here is a man going jiggidy-jig-jig in a black hole. Depth and the current are of only incidental interest to him. He’s after something big, something down there that is pure need, something that, had it the wherewithal, would swallow him whole.’
But, right now, the voice informs us
‘Nothing is happening’.
And, in a way, this is essentially indicative of how the play will progress – for it doesn’t really have a plot. Not even Rylance knows what it’s ‘about’: ‘What is this play about? I don’t know.’ he says in the program. It’s more of a selection of vignettes (in quick succession, punctuated sharply by total darkness) that variously examines, through (often comic) prose-poetry monologues, how we interact with life – becoming increasingly bizarre and surreal in the process.
There is certainly something of Beckett in this play. Right from the outset, the disembodied voice announcing ‘here is a man going jiggidy-jig-jig in a black hole’ and ‘nothing is happening’ seems straight out of Beckett. Throughout Nice Fish we are variously presented with images (and down right plain statements) of life’s absurdity, apparent pointlessness, and meaninglessness. From Erik’s ice-cold comparison of human life to insects (who
‘never worry about where they are […] neglect the long range plan […and] don’t seem to have a sense of place but only require a certain ambience’,
seeming to suggest that human standards of value aren’t as significant or solid as we think
they are), to Ron’s advising (hilariously and at length) that we wear or own specific things to denote our purpose to others –
‘otherwise it might appear that you have no idea what you’re doing, that you are merely wandering the earth, no particular reason for being here, no particular place to go’.
The use of puppets (throughout, and mostly representing main characters) amplifies this sense of transient meaning: suggesting a lack of certainty in reality, just as it implies that we might be lacking control of our lives (like puppets on strings), and as insignificant as a puppet show for the universe. Later a palm tree made entirely from fibre-optic lights (reminiscent of a tacky holiday resort) will appear for apparently no reason at all. Further in this absurdist vein, there is a distinct lack of focus on character development; although this is nothing to do with the skill of the cast – who manage to deliver characters who immediately engage us with their already (and well) developed personalities. Rylance’s Ron is an endearing mix of jovial and haphazard, with his ‘mad bomber hat’, and Wisconsin accent that seems to be slurred by the over-brimming force of his endlessly playful manner – which Erik endures with a sense of exasperation that can only be born of long-standing affection (admirably conveyed by Litchtscheidl).
Some hints are given that Ron is not a native of Northern Minnesota (not entirely clear from his accent, it is rather implied most clearly in a scene concerning a quibble over a fishing license) unlike Erik, is preoccupied with love (or rather the lack of it in his life), and a goofball – whilst Erik is more pensive. For example, in a particularly hilarious scene concerning a snowman (that immediately follows another scene entirely devoted to Ron attempting to amuse Erik by miming along to a singing plastic fish) Ron refers to a previous scene where Erik talked of the strange sense of ancestral connection he felt with a Swedish family (which he anticlimactically discovered were not his real relatives). As he puts his hat on the snowman’s head, Ron enthusiastically cries,
‘I don’t have a top hat like my ancestors… well my predecessors, had. No, I’ve got a mad bomber hat!’
Exasperated, Erik beheads the snowman – but this only encourages Ron, who grabs the snowman from behind, putting his own head in the place where the snowman’s once was. Now pretending to be the snowman, he continues chatting at Erik:
‘I always hoped that someone would come along, someone who would melt in my arms. A woman with whom I could become one. You wouldn’t guess it to look at me but I’m a romantic. But it’s getting rather late in the season for me. So I’m inclined to just drift…’
This is full of the characteristic whimsy of Nice Fish’s humour – that doesn’t really deliver sustained character development.
When the rest of the characters begin to pop up this becomes even more apparent. There’s the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Man who materialises on stage, as if by magic, out of the darkness of the complete cutting of the lights that punctuates the scenes. He talks like a machine, responding to Ron’s attempts to buy a fishing licence with:
‘I don’t accept cash. You can pay online, on smartphone, computer, tablet, or at www.dnr.state.mn.us/licenses, or call 1-888-MN-LICEN (665-4236).’
But quickly after this he abruptly begins speaking directly to the audience – giving a little monologue (a direct recitation of Jenkins’ poem ‘The Saint’) about how he has recently
‘elevated to the status of Temporary Minor Saint (secular)’,
continuing to create an image of himself as a saint in a sort of mystical state, but one whose rapture is
‘suffused with a pale radiance somewhat like the light from a small fluorescent bulb’
as opposed to a holy glow – and who doesn’t levitate like Saint Teresa of Avila (purportedly) did in her Devotion of Ecstasy, but rather like the
Flo and her grandpa, Wayne, have similarly limited character arcs. The former arrives on the scene as a quirky, Moby-Dick reading, dreamer – and will literally jump off the stage, to take a seat amidst the audience, after a small monologue where she says, knowledgeably (whilst the tone of her voice acknowledges the allusion to Shakespeare’s ‘Seven Ages of Man’, ‘all the world’s a stage…’ with an edge that hints at this being a little tired – but nonetheless true),
‘The world’s a stage […] you are merely a player’.
It’s not like this is in any way a revelation to her – or that her worldview has changed at all. Rather it seems that she has simply chosen, on a whim, to act upon something she already knew. She beckons for Wayne to follow her, which he does – clambering off the edge without showing any surprise, and with the same gruffness that he entered the stage with. This moment of meta-theatre (an act that draws to our attention that we are watching something that is not actually real, and that we are actively sustaining with our imaginations) is symbolically followed by the ice sheet’s detaching from the shoreline and beginning to drift – heralding the complete scaling off of the realism established at the play’s beginning: now things are going to get really absurd.
The use of meta-theatre intensifies. Ron touches the lights dangling from the set that are meant to figure the aurora borealis; the DNR Man drags himself out of one of the holes Erik and Ron drilled earlier, returns the phone Ron dropped through one of the holes at the play’s start (in a moment of surreally-perfect slapstick comedy foreshadowing the present breakdown into the bizarre), and comments
‘the phone might ring you from anywhere; the car, the bathroom, out of your coat pocket in a silent darkened theatre…’
Meaning is dissolving – even in terms of the logic of the play itself. This is continued into the final scene, where even the characters themselves melt away. Ron and Erik disrobe, finally stripping down into underwear (in Ron’s case a pink silk nightie, and Erik’s the male equivalent – complete with sock suspenders), and ageing in their gait. They hobble arm in arm around the stage and seem to comment half on life and half on the play:
‘Ron: Old people are leaving this life as if it were a movie
Ron and Erik: I didn’t get it
Erik: It didn’t seem to have any plot
Ron: It was not much for character development either […]
Erik: the whole thing lacked subtlety.’
Then, apparently out of nowhere, two comically huge fishing lures drop from above the stage. Ron and Erik grab the hooks and are lifted off.
This might seem all too abrupt – perhaps that this ‘lacks subtlety’. Indeed, some have complained that they left Nice Fish in ‘hunger for something more substantial’, and have gone so far as to dub the play ‘Waiting for Codot’ – punning Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the plot of which centres around the two men pointlessly and absurdly waiting for the mysterious Godot, who never turns up. But seeing this play as simply a whimsical exercise in Beckett’s Theatre of the Absurd, is, perhaps, a little unfair. It’s far more its own animal. For it is this whimsy and weirdness that makes this particular species of Fish what it is: one that is great fun to encounter, is accessible, and, on a more fundamental level, encourages us to fish deeper in the sea of life’s experiences – to try and catch as much as we can, before we ourselves are caught and reeled out of this sea.
We are not left ‘waiting for Codot’. For Erik does indeed catch a fish – and at that, a nice one:
Ron and Erik cry, as they stare – in comic awe reminiscent of young boys seeing a monster truck – at the fish, and launch into the (imagined) story of what happens to it after its
catching; a direct adaptation of Jenkins’ poem ‘Fish Out of Water’, where a caught fish becomes an extended metaphor for the degradation of the catcher’s marriage. Central to this is the notion of the symbolic significance we instil (often arbitrarily or unconsciously) in the world around us – that is really illusory (the significance of catching a particularly nice fish, or even the notion of marriage). As Ron and Erik put it:
‘Erik: You look for deeper meaning in things. […] You find special significance in certain places and days.
[…] Ron: You set them up like signposts marking the passage of your life.’
But these can easily be broken:
‘Erik: Touch one and they all fall down’.
Erik returns the fish to the water – dropping it back through the ice-hole.
But this does get us somewhere: we have seen the fish, and this gives us some control. Godot (or, in this case ‘Codot’) arrived, and he didn’t fulfil the expectations imposed on him by the imagination – and Erik chose to return him to the water. At least, unlike Estragon and Vladimir in Beckett’s Godot we are not left waiting – we can choose where we imaginatively place significance, even if it has no fundamental value or meaning to anyone but ourselves. As Martin Esslin (who coined the term ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ in his work of the same name) argued ‘the plays that we have classed under the label of the Theatre of the Absurd […] express a sense of shock at the absence, the loss of any such clear and well-defined systems of beliefs or values […] suddenly Man sees himself faced with a universe that is both frightening and illogical – in a word, absurd.’ In the universe of Nice Fish some logic remains, and in this sense it is substantial – not just a whimsical take on the Absurdist mode. Just before the closing scene, they remove their cold weather gear to initially reveal the conventional uniform of office workers. Hands reach up through the holes in the ice, holding cards that Ron reads:
‘the speaker points out that we don’t really have much of a grasp of things, not only the big things, the important questions, but the small everyday things. […] Most of us never truly experience life […] missing the true richness and joy life has to offer.’
Whilst there is still a question as to whether this actually means anything (who says that ‘the speaker’ has any authority?), this viewer would like to propose that we may choose to believe that it does. If we interpret ‘the speaker’ in terms of ‘the speaker’ of a poem we might remember that most of what we’ve heard in this play is in fact poetry (hence, perhaps, the limited character development) – and, at that, often very funny poetry. This world isn’t frightening, it’s whimsical – and however much logic seems to break down, the logic of laughter always remains.
It is, perhaps, because there is something inherently meaningful about laughter. It’s involuntary, and it’s something we all know, but simultaneously it’s difficult to convey through words alone. You need to experience it directly to really get it. It’s what the philosopher G.E. Moore might call a ‘simple’ or ‘unanlayseable’ notion – like the colour yellow, that cannot be described with reference to any other concept (how would you accurately describe the colour yellow to someone who has never experienced it?). It is this unanalysable logic of laughter that resists the absurd elements of this play: something always remains. In this sense laughter in this play is strangely like the experiences of mystics like Psuedo-Dionysius the Areopogite (yes, that is his real name), who argued that his mystical experiences (moments of direct contact with God) could only be expressed via the Via Negativa (speaking only in the negative tense: e.g. ‘God is not…’) – because what they experienced, God, was inexpressible in human language . Of course there’s a world of difference between the notion of a transcendent all-powerful God and a simple human experience like laughter (and God is certainly not present in Nice Fish – unless we count the deus ex machina of the man-sized fishhooks!); nonetheless there is something similar in that both are life affirming. Just as the notion of God suggests a from-whence-we-came, a purpose or essential importance in creation, laughter can create a sense of substance in life, even if (paradoxically) what we are laughing at is the apparent absurdity or meaninglessness of existence. In this sense Nice Fish suggests that it is perhaps worth making the most of the minutia of experience (despite the fact
that the meanings we impose upon these aren’t really real) – even if it’s only to extract a laugh, or just to enjoy the whimsy. What else are we to do?
To put it in the words of Rylance’s friend, James Hillman (psychologist and author of The Soul’s Code, in which he argues against a simply deterministic framework for the soul’s development ) who was dying as this play was being written, and with whom Rylance would sit and ‘chat about the emerging characters in this play’: ‘The imagination exists. It is not in us. We are in it’. This is the world of Nice Fish. It’s absurd insofar as it’s simultaneously destructive of meaning just as at the same time it creates it with laughter. But most of all it invites us to make the most of the experiences life gives us – to drop a line with our imaginations, sit back and hope we catch something fun.
More information about the production can be found at: http://www.nicefishtheplay.co.uk ___
by Emily Swettenham
Saturday 21st December 2016.
 Rylance, M. 2016. ‘Poetry, Prose and Play’. Nice Fish program. The Harold Pinter Theatre.
 Jenkins, L. ‘The Saint’. Read by Jenkins himself, and available at: http://www.louisjenkins.com/Ann_Jenkins_webpages/Poems.html [Accessed: 21st December 2016].
 Billington, M. 2016. ‘Nice Fish review – Mark Rylance reels them in with kooky comedy’. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/nov/25/nice-fish-review-mark-rylance-harold-pinter-theatre-london [Accessed: 21st December 2016].
 Jenkins, L. ‘Fish Out of Water’. Read by Jenkins himself, and available at: http://www.louisjenkins.com/Ann_Jenkins_webpages/Poems.html [Accessed: 21st December 2016].
 Esslin, M. 1965. Absurd Drama. [online]. Available at: http://www.samuel-beckett.net/AbsurdEsslin.html [Accessed: 21st December 2016].
 Moore, G.E. 1922. Principia Ethica. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. p.g.7.
 Ibid. p.g.21.
 ‘It [God] is / not soul / not intellect / not imagination, opinion, reason and / not intellection […] / not life / not being / not eternity, not time […] / not divinity / not goodness’. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The Mystical Theology. In: Mortley, R. 1986. Chapter XII. Pseudo-Dionysius: a positive view of language and the Via Negativa. [online] p.230. Available at: http://epublications.bond.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1012&context=word_to_silence_II [Accessed: 21st December 2016].
 Hillman, J. 1997. The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling.
 Rylance, M. 2016. ‘Poetry, Prose and Play’. Nice Fish program. The Harold Pinter Theatre.