August 9, 2019
Based on a short story by Taiwanese author Huang Chun-ming (黃春明), the multi-disciplinary Fish (魚) by Shinehouse Theatre (曉劇場), directed by Chung Po-yuan (鍾伯淵), moves away from the dance of the rest of this year’s Taiwan Season. Huang writes largely about the lives of ordinary people, his stories filled with everyday humour and tragedy. Fish is just such as it tells of a young boy and his grandfather, and of an unfulfilled promise to bring home a fish. It’s a touching tale of hardship and unfortunate events that lead to conflict and injustice, told through spoken word in Mandarin and Taiwanese (with English translation projected behind), British Sign Language and puppetry.
Each of the company members takes on various roles but at the show’s heart is the puppet that is the young boy. Despite his pale clothes and having no eyes and mouth, the cast conjure a remarkable expressivity from it. You do associate with it and its characters travails, the very blankness of its expression actually helping us watching to more easily project our own feelings onto the character.
It opens with quiet birdsong. Behind, we read “It was a hard era for saying love in 1960s Taiwan”, which gives a hint of the nature of what is to unfold. We see Acha riding his bike, an image particularly well done. Imagine a simple sketch that has delightfully come to life and you have it. Scene changes are shown through portable picture boards, including a super bus.
The grandfather, who loves and is clearly looked up to by Acha, is strong and imposing. His family are poor mountain farmers, but Acha is an apprentice carpenter. Told to buy a fish at the market, he’s smart enough to realise the traders are adding weight, but not smart enough not to get caught out himself. His anger and frustrations voice those of everyone. He does eventually buy that large fish his grandfather so longs for. But misfortune strikes and it is never delivered.
Despite its simplicity and straightforward story, there is a lot going on. The tale also moves along quite swiftly at times. At first, it seems a little overwhelming (although the fact I was listening intently to the language as well as its tone, in addition to reading the translations, almost certainly didn’t help), but it increasingly becomes clear as the story progresses. What does come through loud and clear, and especially at the end, is the poignancy of the story.
I won’t give the end away. Let’s just say that it comes suddenly and on a rather downbeat note, although maybe there’s just a hint of something else there too.
Delightful, engaging and very accessible, Fish is a fine way to spend a midday forty minutes or so.
Fish by Shinehouse Theatre is at Summerhall to August 25. Visit festival19.summerhall.co.uk for details and tickets.