It is with some clever irony that there were no detectable sound effects in this revival of Fishskin Trousers, first performed at Finborough Theatre in 2013 and featuring the same cast, director (Robert Price) and lighting designer (Matt Leventhall) at Park Theatre in 2017. On the back wall of the stage is a static image of sound waves, and at the heart of the story is a mysterious creature. The ‘merman’ is now called The Wild Man of Orford, should you wish to look it up, though I hasten to add a preamble, long and detailed as it was, means no prior knowledge of this old story is required before seeing the show. In essence, he is heard well before he is seen. That is if indeed, he is truly seen at all – for instance, Mog (Eva Traynor) quite rightly questions whether what she experiences is real or imagined.
This production puts its faith almost purely in the hands of the script (Elizabeth Kuti) and its three performers – alongside Mog there’s Mab (Jessica Carroll) and Ben (Brett Brown). It’s very much a stand-and-deliver performance. The audience listens to a series of monologues, and the play switches between characters with seamless transitions. It doesn’t come across as flitting about, and the chopping and changing doesn’t make proceedings unnecessarily complicated. This is because while the stories start off as disparate, they slowly but surely come together, despite a difference of eight hundred years or thereabouts that separate Mab and Ben, and a further generation that separates Ben from Mog.
There’s some dramatic licence, and why not? The twelfth-century Mab speaks in a manner clearly understood by a contemporary audience – the Middle English of the fourteenth-century Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for instance, is very different from twenty-first century British English. I personally, find Middle English somewhat impenetrable, and while purists might well complain about historical verisimilitude or the lack thereof, what needs to be remembered here is that this is a tale about a legend, and so absolute accuracy, whether in terms of linguistics or plot, isn’t what a production of this nature is really going for in any event.
Only in the final moments does a significant change in stage lighting occur, and given what happens at that point in the narrative, it’s understandable. Otherwise, the lighting changes with minute subtlety, if at all, and all three characters remain on stage throughout. The characters not speaking at any given point hold their positions in freeze frame quite impressively, occasionally reacting if appropriate, but either way, it doesn’t detract attention away from the speaker. There is, after all, only three of them in total.
It may not be the most convincing of intertwining stories. What I found most interesting is that it didn’t necessarily follow that the more contemporary the narrative, the better understood it was. I suspect this may have been a deliberate choice in the writing, but it’s Mab’s recollection of what happened that proved considerably more absorbing than the others. Ben, keen to impress a local bar worker he has started seeing, proves comical both in his alpha-male bluntness and his attempts at doing what he believes she will appreciate. A skeleton in his closet, however, provokes some sympathy as well. Mog was, relatively speaking, more difficult to empathise with, perhaps because of the introspective nature of her story, though I note the poetic-like rhythms in many of her lines.
Steadily paced, Fishskin Trousers could have been a little more grounded. The said trousers are in all three narratives, each in their own way, but the meanings and implications of them are ambiguous. Then again, this demonstrates that few things, if anything, are crystal clear in life. An amusing and charming play that considers how certain human behaviours, instincts and characteristics don’t change much over the centuries.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Three people united by the fishing village of Orford and its mysterious island, Orford Ness. From the twelfth century, Mab gives an eye-witness account of the legendary Wild Man of Orford. Eight hundred years later, Ben hears strange noises on the Ness as he tries to fix the island’s radar system. In 2004, Mog is faced with a terrible decision… Long-buried secrets emerge, as these echoing voices intertwine, revealing how the stories of human lives connect in the most surprising and intimate ways, though decades and even centuries separate them.
By Elizabeth Kuti
Directed by Robert Price
Cast includes Brett Brown, Jessica Carroll and Eva Traynor.
Running Time: 1 hours 15 minutes
19th October to 11th November 2017