The Theatreguide.London Review
Harold Pinter Theatre Winter 2016-2017
Nice Fish resembles nothing so much as a Jim Jarmusch film, an all-but-plotless portrait of small and mildly eccentric people doing and saying ordinary and even banal things.
Depending on how you tune into it, you may find it comic, deeply insightful into the human condition or just boring. I found it each of those in repeatedly rotating order.
The text of Nice Fish was assembled by star Mark Rylance and American poet Louis Jenkins from bits and pieces of Jenkins' prose poems, separate and self-contained paragraph-long descriptions, narratives or ruminations.
Binding them together is the image of a pair of Minnesota ice fisherman, which may require a bit of background.
In the frozen winters of the northern United States and Canada some hearty souls cut holes in the thick ice of frozen lakes, drop in a fishing line and then sit around waiting for a bite. Beer almost always plays a role in the experience, and most build or transport temporary wooden cabins to protect them a little from the elements.
The two fishing buddies of Nice Fish played by Mark Rylance and Jim Lichtscheidl choose to sit in the open air, bundled up in arctic gear, passing the time with random chat drawn from the Jenkins prose poems.
They are visited briefly by a forest ranger (Bob Davis) determined to hold them to the letter of state fishing laws, a local young woman (Kayli Carter) who talks and thinks like an out-of-her-time 1960s hippie, and another fisherman (Raye Birk) of no evident personality. (There are also a couple of puppeteers to manipulate small figures representing people in the distance.)
In a string of sometimes very short blackout scenes the two buddies sit silently or exchange gnomic comments that can in context sound profound, comic or meaningless.
Much depends on the actors' delivery. Rylance's absolutely deadpan catalogue of foodstuffs somehow becomes hilarious just because the character is treating the ordinary with such seriousness.
Lichtscheidl's narrative of a family reunion is brought so fully alive that you almost forget that its twist ending was telegraphed long in advance and allow yourself to be surprised by it.
Rylance's childlike delight in describing the perfect baloney-on-white-bread sandwich is equated with the girl's rapt appreciation of the beauties of nature.
The ranger's professional pride in delineating among the various types of fishing licenses, Lichtscheidl's extended explanation of how to tell a dog from a wolf, and conversations on the ecclesiastic significance of bowling pins and logic of making the elderly do somersaults are presented as equally worthy of attention.
The result (as in a Jarmusch film) is to flatten life out so that nothing is any more (or less) significant than anything else.
And (as in a Jarmusch film) that can be inexplicably hilarious, oddly meaningful – it may not look like much in print, but at the moment you hear them, lines like 'How else you gonna live except by denial?' seem very wise – or just tedious.
It is a credit to the text-assemblers, the cast and director Claire Van Kampen that Nice Fish is least often the last of those.
You may not know what it all means, you may not know why you are laughing at some points and being made thoughtful at others. But you will be held through most of the play's uninterrupted ninety minutes and come out a bit bewildered but thoroughly satisfied.
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