In late February 2016, I caught a performance of "Nice Fish" at St. Ann's Warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Though I had no personal involvement in the production, I felt invested in it: I had interviewed Mark Rylance twice about it, read a draft of the play, and had researched the poetry of Louis Jenkins (on which "Nice Fish" is based).
The play - which combines Jenkins' poems and Rylance's dialogue - is a portrayal of two friends ice fishing at the end of winter in Minnesota, but it flows like a dream sequence: not quite linear and occasionally implausible, but magnetic in its depiction of loneliness, desire, and aging. It draws you in. After the show, I snapped a photo with Mr. Rylance, and a few nights later watched at home as he accepted his first Oscar award. As godly as Rylance is the theater world, he is still somewhat unknown in Hollywood. But with two new films underway, (one is the title role in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl's "The BFG"), it's probably just a matter of time before film audiences join the Rylance fan club.
Below are excerpts of our conversation. Read the whole thing at AmericanTheatre.com.
Rylance’s American background has never been a secret, but in "Nice Fish" it’s front and center in a new way. It isn’t just Jenkins’s perceptiveness about human nature that appeals to the actor; it’s his spot-on depiction of a Midwest he remembers—a world of winter sports and stoicism, where nature has a larger-than-life presence that can be both comforting and forbidding. Between preparing for the East Coast debut of "Nice Fish", starring in the West End run of the Shakespeare’s Globe production of "Farinelli and the King" (written by Rylance's wife, Claire van Kampen), doing press for the film "Bridge of Spies", and sitting down to write a new play, the now three-time Tony winner and two-time Olivier winner took some time to talk from his home in London about Jenkins’s work, his memories of winters back home, and why, for a writer, a frozen lake is fertile ground.
The cold climate of a Minnesota winter sets the tone for the entire play. What do you remember about your childhood winters in Wisconsin? Did you enjoy that time of year?
It was very cold. My father had a bad history with cars, and in the bad weather it was a serious problem if you had a car that could potentially break down. My brother used to just hibernate at a certain point in autumn when it got too cold to play football, so it was me out in the snow and on the ice.
There was a beautiful field behind our house, which was on the edge of the suburbs of Milwaukee, and that field used to freeze and we’d play ice hockey on the frozen lake. It was fiercely cold, but I miss it very much here in England. The spring is beautiful in England, but in the north Midwest, spring is so dramatic—it’s been so long since one’s seen green, and suddenly everything bursts into color.
What I enjoy about Jenkins’s work is that he starts each poem with quotidian habits and everyday exchanges, then builds to moments of wisdom. It fits with the setup of these fishermen going, “Where’s your equipment?” and then building to larger moments of contemplation.
There’s a lot of sitting around when you’re ice fishing, so it’s a good place to think, and for someone to talk while the other person isn’t really listening and thinking about their own thing. That appealed to me. The thing with Louis’s writing is that it’s so dense and particular and funny and serious, and has an almost sonnet-like structure of developing a certain reality and then flipping, the way Shakespeare’s sonnets flip the last two lines. I’ve tried in the new version to have this kind of structure. I did love the Guthrie production, but it was encouraging to see how well the poems worked with only a minimal amount of writing from me.
There’s also affectionate mockery of regional culture, like how it makes no sense that ice hockey players wear shorts. I think even for East Coast audiences, you’ll have people who grew up in the Midwest or know Minnesota culture and will pick up on your wink about life there.
That’s a whole new aspect, how the East Coast will take it. I wonder if the East Coast audience will find it funnier, because in the Midwest it’s all normal. When Louis played a video of the 2008 workshop for his family in Duluth, they didn’t laugh at all, and at the end they said, “We had no idea your poems were funny.” Maybe I’ll someday take it to London; it’ll be such a foreign world for them.
One of my favorite lines from the Guthrie version is when Ron and Erik are talking about seeing their breath in the freezing air. One of them says, “The cold here makes the invisible visible.” It’s such a beautiful line and seems to evoke the play’s larger ideas.
Oh, that’s one of my lines! But I think my writing is for another occasion. The play is really about working with Louis’s material. The idea of making the invisible visible is still true.
photo credit: Teddy Wolff