Nice Fish? Queer fish. Never one to stick to the centre-ground, Mark Rylance has come up with that rarest of theatrical beasts – an absurdist poetry recital cum stoner comedy about two ice fishermen. 'Dude, Where's My Carp?' if you like.
Having, on occasion, delivered Louis Jenkins' poems in lieu of an acceptance speech at awards dos, Rylance has teamed up with the 74 year-old American and shaped his off-kilter writings into a play of sorts. Two Minnesotan ice fishermen, Ron and Erik, babble back and forth while waiting for something to bite. We see snippets of conversation between blackouts – mostly non-sequiturs and nonsense – like little cartoon strips. Time passes. The two men fish.
Jenkins writes slightly spaced-out prose poems: wry, humorous texts that delight in the world's oddities. They have a kind of plainspoken profoundness to them; a way of elevating everyday banalities into miniature marvels. Out on the ice, they come out like meandering half-thoughts and idle observations – anything to pass the time and stave the cold off.
Wrapped in day-glo orange thermals, nose rosey, lips chapped, Rylance's Ron delivers a litany of all the things he stakes his health on – brown pills and green veg and fish oil and stuff. Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl), sterner and dead serious about his sport, lists the frustrations of his home-life. They talk bait and lost watches and uniforms and songs. Ron loses his phone to his ice hole.
Very little of their chat makes total sense, but it has a gentle, lapping skew-whiff comedy and a pleasing sound that's easy on the ear. The words seem to float into your skull and dance briefly round your brain. Rylance, in particular, delights in them, relishing the gormless staccato of Ron's Minnesota twang. He pings the word ‘ginseng' into the wind, but mostly seems a bit lost and fuzzy. Rylance has the air of a best man who's drifted off-piste mid-speech, or a newly divorced headmaster distracted during assembly.
What does it add up to? Really, who knows? Or who's keeping track? Out of the babble, there's something about the seriousness of our sticking to structures. Erik attacks the ice with all manner of kit – electric augurs and underwater cameras – all for a simple, age-old activity like ice-fishing. Ron's rather more playful, impish if melancholic. They're joined, at points, by a lawman and an lawbreaker. Bob Davis's DNR official spouts petty bureaucracies about prohibited spear-fishing; Raye Birk's mustachioed Wayne rocks up with his pronged spear and a bowling pin for bait. Kayli Carter's Flo shifts with the seasons, while the men stay frozen.
It's a strange little watch and if it delights, it owes a lot to the design. Todd Rosenthal's set is kitscher than a Jeff Koons Selfridges store window. Wee model pines behind a ‘vast' arctic plain. Steam trickles out of a tiny little sauna chimney and an LED palm tree turns the tundra into a desert island of sorts – as if all this were a mirage. Perhaps it is. The point, beneath it all, is to think less, feel more. Loosen your tie and live a little.
There's a fishing technique known as tickling trout. It's as simple as this: by stroking the underbelly, one can lull trout into a trance, then flip them out of the water onto dry land. Nice Fish is, in its own weird way, the very same thing.
Nice Fish runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 21 January.