Review 10.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Young Vic Theatre

Directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins with design by Johannes Schütz

Main Cast: Michael Gould, Thesues/Oberon; Anastasia Hillie, Hipollyta/Titania; John Dagleish, Lysander; Jemima Rooper, Hermia; Oliver Alvin-Wilson, Demitrius; Anna Madely, Helena; The Mechanicals: Matthew Steer, Peter Quince; Leo Bill, Bottom; Sam Cox, Robin Starveling; Geoff Ayemer, Tom Snout. Lloyd Hutchinson; Egeus/Puck.

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When we think of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the sort of things that conventionally come to mind wouldn’t be out of place in one of those wonderful fairy-emporium shops – like those that Glastonbury is famous for. But this Dream, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbons, definitely stands outside of this. We’re in no a fantasy fairy wood – rather we are out in the field: literally and metaphorically. The characters stand on a semi-circular muddy stage, illuminated by harsh halogen bar lamps that run around the inner rim of its edge, and all backed by a mirror. Lovers will wrestle (both carnally and competitively) in this mud – as if it’s the last day at Glastonbury. This post-festival vibe seems a deliberate appeal to the idea that (as Emma Garland puts it in her piece for Noisey, ‘Having Sex at Festivals Isn’t Just Disgusting, It’s Shit.’) ‘summer music festivals are basically the closest thing humans have to mating season’[1]. For the mud covering the stage becomes a physical representation of love stripped bare – revealing it in all its messiness: un-idealised, raw, and at times grotesque. Yet we are also out of the fairy-Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Young-Vic-147.jpgwood in another sense. As we look at the stage we cannot avoid seeing ourselves – reflected in the mirror backing the stage. Indeed our faces might as well stand in for the trees of the wood where the Dream we are about to watch takes place.

At the same time, the mirror acts as a constant reminder that we are in fact an audience. It essentially removes the forth wall – like the signs held up by actors announcing the scene changes in Brecht’s theatre; an act that aimed to encourage the audience to recognise themselves as an audience, and therefore to be discouraged from over-identifying with the characters on stage, giving them space to adopt a more ‘socially critical’[2] attitude to the characters. But it’s not just the mirror that makes us feel disconcertingly alienated from the play’s main action. For whilst the characters all wear modern clothing (they could easily be any member of the audience), their movements stop us from becoming fully involved with them emotionally. Throughout the performance, none of them leave the stage (although sometimes they stand or sit in rows facing us along the shelf-like niches to the left and right of the mirror; they sip from bottles of water, almost as if we’re seeing the actors backstage). Instead they move around mechanically – like commuters-cum-cyborgs – creating different scene-zones on the bleak, and otherwise empty, stage. Sometimes they just stop, like puppets whose strings have been dropped, and face plant into the mud. They don’t seem quite human; or rather they seem to be humans controlled by some sort of impersonal force.

And, in many ways the characters in this play are. The plot is a tangled knot of love-ties made and un-made by magic, and often in response to social norms. At the play’s start we are met by Hermia, whose father (Egeus) is attempting to have her

‘consent to marry with Demetrius’,

instead of Lysander (the man with whom Hermia is in love). Lysander’s social standing is equivalent to that of Demetrius; Egeus is, on the face of it, more concerned by the fact that Hermia marrying Lysander would conflict with his having power over her according to the social norms of their society:

‘I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,

As she is mine, I may dispose of her:

Which shall be either to this gentleman

Or to her death, according to our law

Immediately provided in that case.’

He claims that Lysander has

‘With cunning […] filch’d my daughter’s heart,

Turn’d her obedience, which is due to me’.

It is to the Duke Theseus that Egeus ‘begs’. Theseus himself is soon to wed Hippolyta, MidsummerNightsDream-JR_feb17and
in this production an interesting parallel is drawn between Hermia (now lying face down in the mud, having heard Theseus support her father’s appeal: ‘to you your father should be as a god’)  and Hippolyta. Before this scene we watched Hippolyta (dressed in a suffocatingly tight looking black suit) ritualistically put on high heels; she seems to struggle to put them on – and when she places her feet down the skinny-stilettos quickly sink and stick in the mud. Throughout the scene she appears to be almost limping. This ritualistic dressing in restrictive (and debilitating) clothing seems to reflect her restrained and almost fearful reaction to Theseus’ speaking of their soon to come wedding (and night):

‘O, methinks, how slow

This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires’.

Hippolyta looks on, rigid, going along with what is expected of her – she seems constrained by her situation, just like Hermia.

But unlike Hippolyta, Hermia decides to rebel – running away with Lysander into the woods. They are followed by Demetrius (who has been told of their eloping by Helena, who is in love with Demetrius and spurned by him). But the woods are inhabited by magical beings, and the lovers’ arguments disturb them. Puck (servant to Oberon the fairy-king) is sent by his master to quiet them down. He puts the juice of a plant that will make the recipient fall in love with whatever they see when they wake on Lysander’s eyelids – mistaking him for Demitrius (Oberon wanted Demitrius to fall for Helena). Lysander wakes to see Helena, and falls for her. In his interpretation of this element of the play, Hill-Gibbins seems to take some cues from Jan Kott’s (whose 1964 work Shakespeare Our Contemporary explored the direct connections he saw between Shakespeare and then-modern European drama, including Brecht and Beckett) feeling that ‘the reduction of characters to love partners seems to me the most peculiar characteristic of this cruel dream; and perhaps its most modern quality’[3]. Lysander and Demitrius wrestle in the mud, like male animals in mating season jacked-up on testosterone. They seem mnd-11completely out of control – or controlled by something beyond themselves. Of course the magic Puck has used on them is out of their control, but it is difficult not to read their animalistic behaviour as revealing our idea of human love (which we like to imagine exists on a level beyond the physical – we tend to idealise the notion of finding ‘the one’, or our ‘soulmate’) as, at base, an impersonal appetitive drive.

Even before Puck puts the juice of the plant on Lysander’s eyelids, we see this in action. As they lay down to sleep on the forest floor, Lysander tries to persuade Hermia to allow him to lie next to her:

‘One turf shall serve as pillow for us both;

One heart, one bed, two bosoms and one troth.’

She refuses him,

‘Nay, good Lysander […] lie further off’,

but he persists,

‘riddl[ing] very prettily’ 

(as Hermia puts it) to try and talk her into it. This is brief, and after her second rebuttal he seems to have learnt his lesson:

‘Amen, amen, to that fair prayer, say I;

And then end life when I end loyalty!

Here is my bed: sleep give thee all his rest!’

However, in this production we can’t be so sure. For as he ‘riddle[d]’ he was pulling Hermia into a close and distinctly sexual embrace: reaching under her skirt, and seeming not to hear her words as he started to lie her down. It is only with the help of her legs (kicking and pushing) that Hermia manages to force a response to her panickedmethode-times-prod-web-bin-2a9d5b20-fa9d-11e6-a6f0-cb4e831c1cc0.jpg

‘Lie further off’.

Even Lysander seems shocked at his behaviour – as if he doesn’t quite understand how he could have been so possessed.

Despite this, when Lysander turns in favour of Helena, the women behave just like the men – wrestling in the mud. They even throw handfuls of it at each other, along with verbal abuse (centring on physical attributes – Hermia’s being shorter than Helena):

‘Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail’d with him.

And are you grown so high in his esteem;

Because I am so dwarfish and so low?

How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;

How low am I? I am not yet so low

But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.’

It all sounds (excuse the anachronism) bizarrely Darwinian. If this is the state of young love, we are given an insight into more mature relationships in Theseus and Hippolyta, and Titania (the fairy-queen) and Oberon – who are both played by Michael Gould (Theseus/Oberon) and Anastasia Hillie (Hippolyta/Titania). These dual roles develop a parallel between the two pairs – although one between foils: Theseus’ sexual dominance, versus Oberon’s jealousy and feelings of sexual inadequacy; Hippolyta’s uptightness, versus Titania’s sexual yearning. We see Theseus at the play’s start looking in the mirror, flexing his muscles as he dons a black silk dressing gown – he looks like Hugh Hefner. Theseus’ dominating sexuality contrasts the sexual anxiety of Oberon. For he is angry that Titania refuses his request that she give up her page-boy to him. In retaliation he takes the same plant that he orders Puck to put on Lysander’s (and, later Demitrius’) eyes, and to use it on Titania – ensuring that when she wakes the first thing she sees is

‘some vile thing’.

This turns out to be Bottom – one of the Mechanicals (a small theatre band led by Peter Quint), who has been transfigured by Puck into a man with an ass’ head (making Oberon’s queen seem an ass for falling in love with an ass).

As Titania wakes from her fairy bower (in this production simply a patch of the mud covering the stage; in the foetal position she seems vulnerable) she sets eyes on Bottom – and falls in love. When she sees him Bottom (hilariously played by Leo Bill) is singing – but instead of the traditional song (which gives actors the opportunity to do their best impression of a donkey: ‘Whose note full many a man doth mark, / And dares not answer nay;-‘, hopefully rousing tumultuous giggles from the audience) he sings Aerosmith’s ‘I Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Young-Vic-137.jpgDon’t Wanna Miss a Thing’. Whilst some might miss the traditional moment of comedy, Leo Bill’s increasingly whiney (and cringey) rendition of Aerosmith is truly hilarious – with each increase of volume drawing a peal of giggles, and eventually outright hard laughs. However the song choice also draws out the sexual politics between Titania and Oberon: ‘I could stay awake just to hear you breathing / Watch you smile while you are sleeping / While you’re far away and dreaming’, is both tender and not a little creepy – we could easily imagine the jealous Oberon singing it. But the song also fits in with this Bottom: he looks like a festival-going guy with his long hair, too-tight skinny jeans, wellies and aviator spectacles, exuding a sort of teenage sexual energy, which Titania seems to find exilherating – liberating, even. He seems to allow her to be more open with her sexuality. She takes great pleasure in caressing his ears – which are actually a pair of stuffed nude tights (reminiscent of Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’; he wears another pair on his arms, and he also wears another pair around his waist – except that this is stuffed with an empty Evian bottle, and is unmistakably phallic). Bottom taps into a deep vein of Titania’s sexuality: raw, inelegant, and dirty. We see this in particular when Titania calls upon three of her ‘fairies’ to serve Bottom:

‘Peaseblossom! Cobweb! Moth! and Mustardseed!’

No fairies come. Instead Titania takes on their roles – in a sort of erotic role play. Even Bottom seems sexed-out by her; in response to her role-playing there comes only an abashed ‘sorry’. Perhaps this is why she refuses to hand over her page-boy to Oberon – the latter cannot give her what she needs.

It seems that Oberon has underestimated the power of Titania’s sexual appetites. Later, when Hillie (Titania) is again Hippolyta, Bottom’s (now in the role of Pyramus as part of the play the Mechanicals put on for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding) speech in anguish believing his lover, Thisbe, to have been killed by a lion, Hippolyta is moved –

‘Beshrew my heart, but I pity the man.’

It’s as if a switch has clicked in her head; for from here on out she seems more Titania than Hippolyta. Bottom too seems to recognise her, and he addresses his speeches (as Pyrimus) to her – stressing, in particular, their carnal imagery –

‘Come, come to me,

With hands as pale as milk;

Lay them in gore…’

– as they grow closer and closer, eventually entwining themselves, as they sink onto the muddy ground. Again lovers are ‘reduc[ed…] to love partners’ only – something that is emphasised by the farcical performance of the Mechanicals (acting as if acting badly is Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Young-Vic-214.jpgnotoriously difficult, but these Mechanicals do it well – Sam Cox’s teenagerly-defiant ‘Moon’ and Aaron Heffernan’s childishly-fastidious Thisbe are particularly good). They perform the Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe – before Pyramus believes his lover, Thisbe, to have been killed by a lion, they whispered their love to one another through a wall (a physical symbol of their families’ denial of their wanting to be together). But when he believes his lover to have been killed he rashly throws himself on his sword – and, when Thisbe returns, seeing her love dead, kills herself too.

We hold this narrative as an idealised view of true love: it is, in essence, that of Romeo and Juliet (the plot of which Shakespeare’s 16th to early-17t century audience would have been familiar with, just as we are today). But it is undeniable that there is a degree of comedy in the extremity of the lovers’ impulsive actions – even something of the grotesque. The Mechanicals’ performance is meant to be amateurish, but the degree to which their performance hangs together as something that we can still term a ‘performance’ is a matter of direction. Hill-Gibbins chooses to allow it to totally dissolve (with Bottom’s becoming descending into the mud with Hippolyta/Titania in a quasi-carnal embrace) – drawing out the grotesque element in the Mechanical’s show. For example the Lion wears only his underwear, and one of the stuffed pairs of tights that were Bottom’s ears; when he roars he does so flailing his arms about madly. This makes the formal (almost courtly) commentary of the characters watching the play (Theseus, Hippolyta, Lysander, Hermia, a-midsummer-nights-dream-at-the-young-vic-01-c-keith-pattison-58b973f4eaa87-58b975c3339bc.jpgHelena, and Demitrius) seem completely disjointed – perhaps suggesting that the notions of love that we sustain in society (e.g. idealising ‘the one’ – as Romeo and Juliet do to one another, so much so that they choose to die as opposed to living without their respective ‘one’) fail to marry up with love in reality. The broken figures of Hermia – face in the mud at the feet of Lysander – Demetrius and Helena, on either side of the Mechanical’s ‘stage’ epitomise this: the mud they are caked in seems a sort of metaphor for the emotional damage love has done to them.

We might say that ‘love’ has caused them this pain, but it was Puck who took Lysander for a-midsummer-nights-dream-imageDemitrius (Oberon sent him to use magic on Demitrius to make him fall for Helena), and thereby set the lovers sparring in the mud. It seems that Kott’s influence is also strongly seen in this Puck. Kott’s Puck is not ‘just a playful dwarf from a German fairy tale, or even a poetic gremlin in the fashion of a romantic féerie’[4], and nor is Hill-Gibbins’. This Puck is an ageing punk, irritable, and bitter – he wears a scraggy red and back wig. His mistaking Lysander for Demitrius is not a ‘playful’ gaffe, but rather an act of deliberate negligence: he simply doesn’t care. In this regard it seems Kott’s influence can be seen in a far more fundamental sense, for it is Puck who ‘pulls all the characters on strings’[5], ‘put[ting] the mechanism of this world in motion’[6] (manipulating relationships of love; he might even be seen as the mechanism of love in physical form) – and in this production, as he does so, he literally ‘puts it in motion and mocks it at the same time’[7]. When Oberon demonstrates (with many elaborate gestures) how the juice of the plant is to be used, as he

‘streak[s Titania’s] eyes’

with it, Puck imitates him self-mockingly – and when it comes to his actually using the plant he goes further. Instead of miming the delicate placement of the plant’s juice onto Lysander’s eyes (as Oberon showed him) he takes one of the bottles of water (sat on the shelf-like part of the back wall) and drips it onto Lysander’s head; he looks up at the audience grinning – waiting for a response. We laugh; he opens the bottle again and proceeds to empty its contents onto Lysander’s head. We laugh again, more loudly this time – his seemingly excessive cruelty is oddly funny; he begins to beat Lysander with the empty bottle.

Therefore, if we do understand this Puck as in some sense to represent the mechanism of love (‘the mechanism of this world’; it is worth adding that he occasionally acts like a stage director – albeit one who is apathetic to the health of his actors – he violently throws Demitrius and Lysander from the shelf-like niches along the back wall onto the stage), we simultaneously find ourselves regarding him as personifying cruelty, and indifference. The last of these are reflected in other moments. For example when Bottom (now returned to his fully human form) tediously runs in circles around the stage – until he is tripped up by Puck, when he continues his laps, but now on all fours like an ape or a baby. This is funny – but in the absurd sense. For it seems that, like the character’s in the Absurdist plays of Beckett (that are often read as presenting worlds that are apparently indifferent to humanity, and where human life has no inherent value or meaning), Bottom is going nowhere (even regressing – devolving into an apish/baby-like crawl) – and is not helped by the apparently arbitrary action of ‘the mechanism of this world’ (Puck). As the play draws to a close the cast, led by Titania (who holds Bottom’s hand), all join hands in a long MSND4.jpgline; she runs – pulling everyone along with her – running them in circles, and what seems like impossible knots. However, the chain remains single-file: everyone is left chasing – never catching, never making a meaningful connection.

Still in single-file, they press themselves against the mirror (which has been mostly painted over; now it is simply a black wall – with the exception of a small section at the top in which we can see only ourselves), with their backs to the audience. This effectively isolates us, the audience, from the characters – who jump as if trying to reach the reflected faces (our faces) in the small strip of mirror left unpainted. Hermia draws giggles from us as she jumps more aggressively than the rest to make up for her being (in her own words) ‘so dwarfish’. Is it cruel for us to laugh? Or do we laugh to distract ourselves from the disconcerting sense that these characters have suggested (and are suggesting) to us that love is not what we think it to be? For in the world they present us, love is not an idealised vision of finding ‘the one’ or our ‘soulmate’, rather it is a a case of impersonal forces drive people together (just as they may drive us apart – consider the case of Lysander and Hermia). Further, as they stand reaching up to our reflections in the mirror, they seem to question the the very notion of being ‘together’ – challenging the idea that we really can form meaningful human connections at all.

Some have said of that this production of Dream ‘dispenses with all of the magic and much of the comedy’[8]. They aren’t wrong. The laughs evoked by this comedy are not jovial – they aren’t full of the warmth of a midsummers’ night. Rather they are laughs spurred by disorientation and discomfort when two contrary ideas collide (challenging a conventionally held conceptions). They are the laughs the idea of a ‘British summer’ can bring, or the seemingly crazy and carnal acts attending music festivals (like Glastonbury) can unleash. And whilst its arguable that the striking staging might detract from the poetry of Shakespeare’s words (as might the focus on physical theatre – for example Bottom’s running around the stage), it might equally be said that it draws out challenging themes that our conventional fairytale-like conception of Dream shies away from. Puck ( delivers the last words of Dream:

‘If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber’d here

While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream,

Gentles, do not reprehend:

if you pardon, we will mend:

And, as I am an honest Puck,

If we have unearned luck

Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,

We will make amends ere long;

Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.

Give me your hands, if we be friends,

And Robin shall restore amends.’

This production asks us to take a position: to stay in a dream of love as we imagine it (an idealised quest where finding ‘the one’, or our ‘soulmate’ is possible: ‘think but this, and all is mended’), or to wake up to its realities (as this production presents them – perhaps epitomised in the arbitrary, indifferent, and sometimes cruel Puck: ‘the mechanism of this world’). Do we ‘the Puck a liar call’? That’s up to you.

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More information about the production can be found at: http://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/a-midsummer-nights-dream 

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by Emily Swettenham

7th March 2017.

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References:

[1] Garland, E. 2014. ‘Having Sex at Festivals Isn’t Just Disgusting, It’s Shit’. Noisey. [online]. Available at: https://noisey.vice.com/en_uk/article/having-sex-at-festivals-isnt-just-disgusting-its-shit [Accessed: 7th March 2016].

[2] Brecht, B. Collated by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama. Translated by Davis, J., Fursland, R., Giles, S., Hill, V., Imbrigotta, K., Silberman, M. and Willett, J. Edited by Silberman, M., Giles, S. and Kuhn, T. 2015. Brecht on Theatre. Third Edition. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.: London. p.g.187.

[3] Kott, J. Translated by Taborski, B. 1964. ‘Titania and the Ass’s Head’. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Methuen & Co. Ltd.: London. p.g.176.

[4] Ibid. p.g.172.

[5] Ibid. p.g.174.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hemmings, S. 2017. ‘A midsummer night’s misogyny at the Young Vic’. The Financial Times. [online]. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/1a715050-fa91-11e6-9516-2d969e0d3b65 [Accessed: 7th March 2016].

Review 8.

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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.

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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 fishwhere 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.’[1] 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 (whonice-fish-second-large_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bq5yqlqqeh37t50scym4-zegtt0gk_6efzt336f62ei5u

‘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 bombermaxresdefault 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’[2]) about how he has recently
been

‘elevated to the status of Temporary Minor Saint (secular)’,

111549continuing 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

‘Hindenburg’.

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 0594_160116_artnicefishdress‘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

nice-fish‘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’[3], and have gone so far as to dub the play ‘Waiting for Codot’[4] – 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:

‘Nice Fish…’ 

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’[5], 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 th562_160131_artnicefishe 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.’[6] 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’[7] or ‘unanlayseable’[8] 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 [9]. 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 nice-fish-jim-lichtscheidl-and-mark-rylance-photo-credit-teddy-woolf-jpg-1000x600substance 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 [10]) who was dying as this play was being written, and with whom Rylance would sit and ‘chat about the emerging characters in this play’[11]: ‘The imagination exists. It is not in us. We are in it’[12]. 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.

___

References:

[1] Rylance, M. 2016. ‘Poetry, Prose and Play’. Nice Fish program. The Harold Pinter Theatre.

[2] Jenkins, L. ‘The Saint’. Read by Jenkins himself, and available at: http://www.louisjenkins.com/Ann_Jenkins_webpages/Poems.html [Accessed: 21st December 2016].

[3] 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].

[4] Ibid.

[5] 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].

[6] Esslin, M. 1965. Absurd Drama. [online]. Available at: http://www.samuel-beckett.net/AbsurdEsslin.html [Accessed: 21st December 2016].

[7] Moore, G.E. 1922. Principia Ethica. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. p.g.7.

[8] Ibid. p.g.21.

[9] ‘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].

[10] Hillman, J. 1997. The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling.

[11] Rylance, M. 2016. ‘Poetry, Prose and Play’. Nice Fish program. The Harold Pinter Theatre.

[12] Ibid.