Mark Rylance’s recent acting successes; on stage in Farinelli and the King and Jerusalem, on the big screen in Bridge of Spies and on TV in Wolf Hall, make the opening in London of a play that he co-wrote and in which he also acts, a much anticipated event. Nice Fish arrives, cast intact, following a sell-out run in New York and should see similar success in London. Ice fishing in Minnesota is not an obvious setting for a play, but as a vehicle for a whimsical, surreal and at times existentialist comedy, this play is both entertaining and compelling.
Friends, Ron (Rylance) and Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) are trying to make the best of an end of season ice-fishing expedition on a lake in Minnesota. Ron is, at best, an inept and disinterested fisherman, and much more interested in talking about the nature of life and his experiences, while Erik really knows what he is doing and wants to focus on catching that big fish. As the action develops, that fish becomes a metaphor for life’s purpose, with other characters appearing to challenge and obstruct our heroes in their ambition. A messianic DNR officer arrives to question their right to fish, a young girl emerges from a sauna to distract them from their objectives, and a spear fisherman in fancy dress offers new insights and a different, if illegal, approach to securing their prey. All of these characters may not be as they appear and, as the action becomes ever more surreal, we are led to question whether the frozen lake really exists, and if our heroes are the hunters or the hunted.
Rylance and co-writer Louis Jenkin’s poetic prose style, together with Claire van Kampen’s direction, give this comedy elements of real beauty, and some of the soliloquies of Ron and Erik are moments of genius; notably ruminations on the difference between a dog and a wolf, and Erik’s compulsion to withhold delivering letters when he was a postman. Rylance has great command of the stage, with a perfect Fargoesque Scandinavian-American delivery, and his struggles to put up a tent in a blizzard are comic gold. Jim Lichtscheidl more than holds his own, with a tale of visiting relatives in Scandinavia (or so he thought) priceless. All of the performances are strong, despite a lapse in the narrative when the young girl, Flo, and the spear fisherman, Wayne, extemporise. Todd Rosenthal’s set is perfect in drawing us in, with the use of distant puppetery, to believing we are witnessing a vast expanse of ice, and then transforming to pose the questions surrounding what we have really been witnessing.
Surreal comedy may not be for everyone, but the audience on the first night of this production was universally appreciative and the production’s 13-week run looks sure to sell out. For those that struggle to get a ticket, the theatre offers places to those who turn up in fishing gear, complete with a rod. On the question of the surreal, is it possible that Godot was a fish?