Fisk, a new play by Tortoise in a Nutshell, is advertised as ‘visual theatre’, and as a visual exhibition it certainly does not disappoint. I cannot remember seeing a more visually beautiful set on stage (or film for that matter) and the simple yet evocative backdrop tells the story almost without need for the actors themselves.
The story in question is a strange but poignant tale of a fisherman who, having been on the very brink of drowning himself in the sea at the beginning of the play, is interrupted at the final moment by a large, talking fish. Talking is perhaps the wrong word to use – little of the play actually involves the characters engaging in conversation, and in fact, all speech is minimised. Rather, their relationship is shown through physical connection and dance which makes the visual element of the piece all the more alluring.
Although the design of the set consisted of little more than a crude metal and paper structure in the centre of one colossal, rippling material sheet, it managed to avoid veering too close to the overly-contrived side of minimal design. Instead, the sheet sea was constantly in motion, alarmingly huge and powerful at times, fading almost into inconsequence at others, a projection of the inner emotions of the lone man riding its waves.
I was mesmerised equally by the haunting soundtrack that played for a few short, precious minutes at the beginning of the piece, and which I found myself wishing would continue for its duration. It was not to be, sadly, and what followed was a somewhat rude awakening from the trance. With the entrance of the fish, the play took a turn away from its aesthetically promising beginning and into territories less appealing to (at least my) ear and eye.
When the fish first burst through the floor of the boat with an irritating personality in tow, I tried to hold onto the fading hopes I had for a subtle and refined piece of visual storytelling. The shift to disco music and pulsing lights, however, heralded the death of my dreams, and I watched in bemusement the strangely out of place dance-off and exercise class the fish encouraged the fisherman to participate in. By the time she brought out a microphone and began speaking incoherently into it, I felt as flat and exasperated as the man she was trying to cheer up.
I felt slightly traitorous at being relieved – even secretly elated – at the mournful ending, which I was purely for the reason that it brought with it a return to the soft rolling waves and elegant soundtrack of the opening. The vibrancy of these more energetic scenes was fun, and I could see what the company was trying to do but the transition and these over-zealous scenes unfortunately detracted from the story itself.
The body of the play was certainly not without merits: it had moments of real tenderness and poignancy and the neatly-acted physical theatre was beautifully balanced and moving against the exquisite backdrop. However, it was a strange choice to juxtapose such an elegant concept and set with a number of brash scenes that neared absurdity in their contrast.
Overall, this play is worth watching for the gentle handling of the subject matter and for the sheer loveliness of the design. It is an intriguing concept and sensitively produced by the company, and for those who can brush over the jarring divergences of aesthetic, there is a profound message and a mesmerising magic in the physical and visual storytelling.
Guest Reviewer: Jess Cowie