Waiting for Cod-ot?

IT IS a well-known chapter in theatre history. When “Waiting for Godot” was first performed in Britain in 1953, audiences were mystified. Theatre critic Bernard Levin wrote that Samuel Beckett had written “a really remarkable piece of twaddle”. The now-canonical line from the play—“nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful”—was met with a jeering “hear, hear!” from the stalls. Peter Bull, who was playing Pozzo, claimed that his experiences of war were trifling in comparison with the “waves of hostility”, “mass exodus” and “audible groans” of the first performance.

With its aimless central characters, off-kilter dialogue and gleeful disregard for the conventions of plot, critics have compared “Nice Fish” —a collaboration between prose poet Louis Jenkins and thespian-cum-Hollywood-star Mark Rylance—to Beckett’s absurdist magnum opus. The Guardian, commenting on the play’s original run at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York, claimed that “if Samuel Beckett were to resurrect just long enough to script a couple of episodes of Prairie Home Companion, the result might resemble ‘Nice Fish’.” The New York Daily News said that audiences should prepare for the play by imagining “‘Waiting for Godot’ on a frozen lake”. This seems unfair. “Nice Fish” is altogether more enjoyable.

It is saved from the jeers and walkouts on account of four things. The first—and the most obvious—is that audiences are no longer as shocked and bewildered by existential drama as they were in the 1950s. The absurdist mantle was taken up by such figures as Harold Pinter, Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard and, with each new play and each performance, became less hideous and iconoclastic. Audiences learnt to revel in the dramatic moment, rather than trying to read the play as a parable—a tendency that is mocked at the close of “Nice Fish”. An old couple laments that they “didn’t get it”, that it “didn’t seem to have any plot”, that there was “not much…character development” or “subtlety”. It is evidence of how far dramatic tastes have changed that these lines gathered some of the biggest laughs of the performance. That the fancy West End theatre hosting the show is named after Pinter himself is yet further proof of absurdism’s gradual shuffling into the mainstream.

The play’s second saving grace is its brevity. Messrs Jenkins and Rylance have been wise to keep the script short (it is only 90 minutes, with no interval), and director Claire van Kampen has chopped it up further into short vignettes, punctuated by blackouts. It keeps audiences both focused and surprised; there is a childlike joy in seeing Mr Rylance peering into a hole in the ice, then thrown sideways by the wind, then peering through a hole in a tent. There is no time for the dialogue to decline into mind-numbing tedium.

Third: “Nice Fish” is genuinely funny. Whereas the gibberish in “Godot” –“looks to me more like a bush”, “a shrub”, “a bush”—soon becomes dull, this play has actual jokes with set-ups and punchlines. Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) speaks emotionally of visiting his “ancestral home” and feeling a strong sense of kinship with “Grandpa Sven, Lars-Olaf and Marie, Erik and Gudren, Cousin Inge and her two children”. “It seemed to me that I had known these people all my life,” he muses, before noting that he had gone to the wrong farm. Ron (Mr Rylance) later delivers a monologue about Mary Beth Anderson, a girl with “perfect hair and perfect teeth” and who “always seemed that she knew exactly what she wanted”. The relationship declines; she tells Ron that she feels smothered, that she has no time to herself, that she cannot speak to any other men. “What are you talking about?” he says. “We only met an hour ago!”

Yet the play’s fourth and greatest strength is Mr Rylance (though this is not to discredit Mr Lichtscheidl’s skilful contrapuntal performance). He is magnetic, switching effortlessly from straight-faced to farcical and adding a well-timed “yeah” or sideways look to provoke yet more laughter. In the wrong hands, watching an actor peer through the bitten centre of a baloney sandwich to “get a new view of the world” would be irritating or seem like terrible scriptwriting: Mr Rylance makes it both endearing and evocative of a sort of childlike wonder. Comparing his boisterous turn in “Nice Fish” to the quiet power of his Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall” suggests that he will indeed be remembered as one of the finest actors of his time.

It is unlikely that future generations will look back on “Nice Fish” as a piece of ground-breaking theatre—it draws too much on what has come before. Any reprisals without Ms van Kampen and Mr Rylance at the helm will seem inherently less appealing. But, for now, “Nice Fish” makes for a thoroughly enjoyable, and thoroughly bizarre, piece of drama. Audiences in search of a fun night at the theatre will be glad they took the bait.

“Nice Fish” is showing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until February 11th