Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 11 February 2017
HERE’S THE PLAICE TO BE…
Ah, universal truths! We are all living on thin ice, knocking up inadequate shelters, fishing hopefully down holes into the chilly truth beneath, accepting that the past is over and the future somewhere else. Floating off on a floe, sometimes in lovely harmony singing a song of memory so the gun-happy hunters know not to shoot at us. But mainly we’re holding inconsequential conversations propped up with improbable factoids.
We grow older, and decide at last just to “scratch a few petroglyphs to puzzle archaeologists in the future, and leave wanton destruction to the young”. Don’t expect coherence from human existence. “The old leave this life like a movie, muttering “I didn’t get it”.
If you are now backing away, defensively murmuring ‘Beckettian absurdism, oh for God’s sake it’s nearly Christmas!”, come back immediately. From the moment a tiny puppet fisherman appears under a grey sky on Todd Rosenthal’s set of a vast midWest midwinter icefield somewhere on the Great Lakes, a creased and ragged tale unfolds under skies from grey to gold to starry and is shot through with rich humour: at moments, you think of Morecambe and Wise scripts interfered with by Pete and Dud.
Gasps and barks of laughter come when least expected, as Jim Lichtsheidl’s Erik, concentratedly morose, reflects on how a lost watch makes him realize that “nothing is the way I thought it was”. He is having to put up with his piscatorially uncommitted, wayward, gormlessly rambling friend Ron – Mark Rylance. There are incursions from a bureaucratic enforcement officer who thinks he is a saint and finds it difficult to steer when levitating; then from young Flo (Kayli Carter) and her splendidly oracular grandfather. I wanted to keep writing down lines but it is unwise to take your eyes off the cast, as fascinating things happen. Though even when glancing away you get lapidary reflections like the fact that “people being mostly water, a cold climate gives you a certain solidity”.
Last time Rylance played this theatre (when it was still The Comedy and soon after the immense JERUSALEM) it was in a bizarre piece called La Bete. I was one of the few who liked it, for the sheer madness and for our hero as Valere the clown “Who else could hold us, hysterical yet horrified, a compulsive deluded entertainer [with] an elfin, wounded, sensitive yet crazy expression I cannot erase from my retinas”. Since then he has been a screen sensation, as Thomas Cromwell and as a taciturn Russian Spy acting Tom Hanks’ socks off with a single eyebrow. His last West End show was the glorious Globe transfer of Farinelli And The King , which had me burbling about him again “half-clown half-angel, those comic slanted eyebrows over a face oversensitive, visionary, quivering with the griefs of eternity and the music of the spheres.” Dear oh dear. Something must be done about this hero-worship of mine; but the man doesn’t do much to help me over it.
For his return here is an event in a fabulously eccentric piece he has “stitched together” using the prose poetry of the American Louis Jenkins and a lot of improvisation. His wife Clare van Kampen directs, changing scenes and moments by the simple expedient of a total blackout (rather unnerving, given that on press night a huge swathe of West End was powerless and other shows cancelled). It is deep, it is melancholy, it is hilarious, it is all human life and doubt and oddity. It is 90 minutes straight, a lot of tickets go for £ 15, they give away a few free each night to people who arrive dressed as fish or ice-fishermen. So if you have a taste for absurdism, or comedy, or the random inconsequentiality of human life, you’ll fall for it . I did.
Box Office: 0844 871 7622 to 11 feb