Mark Rylance spent his childhood years in the States, part of them beside the crumbling shores of Lake Michigan. With his play Nice Fish, which he wrote with the collaboration of poet Louis Jenkins, he is revisiting this experience by setting it on one of the frozen lakes of Wisconsin. He is obviously very taken with Jenkins’ poems, who also spent his informative years living beside one of these dark, deep waters, and this surreal and whimsical production is based around them. First aired in America it has now transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre, luckily giving us another chance to see one of, if not the greatest stage actors of our time.
The long, hard winter is coming to a close and Ron (Rylance) and Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) are two friends taking time out together fishing on the ice. Erik is a seasoned fisherman, Ron not so much. They spend their time, Godot- like, ruminating on life, love and the landscape, all the while dealing with whatever weather this part of the world can throw at them. The two men are consumate actors and the scene where they battle with a particularly fearsome gale, makes the audience sit tighter in their seats to prevent being blown away! Despite being very different in character (Erik has a serious air and tends to worry, whilst Ron, the eternal optimist, likes to clown around) the two men kind of get along! Louis Jenkins’ humerous and atomospheric poems pepper the dialogue and the skill and physicality of the cast ensure this strange play is thought provoking, funny and endearing.
A few other characters join them on the ice at various times throughout the play. Their first visitor is a bumptious official from the Department of Natural Resources (Bob Davis), quickly followed by a fairy-like female called Flo (Kayli Carter) and her spear fishing grandfather Wayne (Raye Birk). A couple of tiny puppets also pepper the upstage icy wasteland, which, along with the distant minute trees help to highlight the vastness of the environment in which the play is set.
Todd Rosenthal has covered the entire stage in white polystyrene, which does such a good job of giving the appearance of snow covered ice, that one can quite understand why Ron is encased in a bright orange parka with matching salopettes and ear flap hat. The cold is so palpable that when Flo arrives dressed in non cold weather gear, the main thought is, “I bet she’s freezing!”.
Claire Van Kampen, directs with a lightness of touch and elicits the very best performances from the cast, especially the playwright himself. But then she is Mrs. Rylance, so no surprise there. Not that I think her husband can ever deliver a bad performance. He has the audience in the palm of his hand from the word go and laughter abounds even when the absurdity of the piece is at its zenith and his wrestle with a tent is a joy to behold. We soon begin to realise that the abrupt blackouts that occur throughout the 1hr 40mins are actually one of the least strange things taking place. Can anyone explain the appearance of a palm tree festooned with fairy lights? No? Does it matter? Not one bit. After all, Mark Rylance himself states that he doesn’t really know what the play is about and will be making sense of it, word by word, as are we the audience.
All I do know is that Nice Fish is a theatrical recipe that includes mysticism, surrealism, absurdity and a dollop of truth. The humour of Spike Milligan and Monty Python springs to mind and that’s no bad thing at all, especially with a cast and creative team all pulling together to provide a joyous evening of theatre.