Theatre Review: Fisk casts spotlight on mental health awareness

Edinburgh-based theatre company Tortoise in a Nutshell, in association with Denmark’s Teatr Katapult, brought their enigmatic and powerful new project – Fisk – to Macrobert.

The essentially dialogue-free and highly allegorical production incorporates a vast variety of media in an attempt to demonstrate the emotional and situational peaks and troughs an individual suffering from a psychological disorder, or their partner, may be subjected to.

The opening scene, of a man on a boat washing a cup in a fish-tank, sets the mood for this abstract and curious performance. The protagonist then undergoes a host of emotional states, ranging from fear to frustration, pity to anger, denial to self-hatred, and demonstrates his attempts at keeping these in check – via breathing techniques, listening to the sound of the waves curling around him, or by folding paper boats (from within a paper boat).

This is cyclical and futile, however, as he notices a spot of black slime on the folded vessel, and discovers that there is a similar black growth on the same port side of his own boat.

Similarly, when the protagonist creates a fragile paper puppet, possibly in an attempt to gain control of at least that version of himself, the black slime begins to cover the puppet’s leg and chest and, upon inspection, the protagonist’s as well.

Deciding to end it all, he clears away his meager possessions into a trunk, removes his shoes, and prepares to jump off.  At this exact moment a green fish jumps onto the boat, screaming ‘tea!’ and flapping fins and tea-bags around.

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credit: manipulatefestival

The comedic timing of this and numerous subsequent moments in the production, and their sharp contrast to the dark and morbid tones, create an emotional roller-coaster of a project, demonstrating tremendous acting and directorial skill in a virtually silent play.

Indeed, I had to look at other spectators to confirm that I wasn’t the only one making an emotional 180°, and saw others as perplexed as myself, laughing while teary-eyed, confused in their own responses. This perplexity is a lingering theme in the production, an intentional goal, and a mirrored answer to how quickly a mental state of one suffering from a disorder can alter.

Through a skillfully crafted performance the audience is therefore transported onto that boat as well, reflecting and feeling all the developments of our protagonist.

Once the second character, in all her charisma and absurdity, is introduced, the play shifts to the interaction between the two, resulting in a very human partnership. Along with numerous other aspects of the production, it’s unclear whether the fish’s appearance in the most dire of circumstances represents the protagonist’s survival instinct, or if it’s a metaphorical vision of his partner.

However, as the company’s Artistic Director Ross MacKay stated in a panel discussion after the show: ‘we’re not focusing on giving you all the answers, but on igniting the imagination’.

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credit: manipulatefestival

And ignite it they had, as a brilliant score, layered effects, sharp contrasts in mood, sound and silence, tender and fragile puppeteering, and raw emotions all collide in a tangible wave and sweep over the audience, leaving us dumbfounded but deeply connected to the action, each in our own way.

In the short panel following the production, MacKay also described the company’s methods of researching such a sensitive and complex issue prior to scripting.

The troupe gathered a panel of their own, of both mental health specialists and individuals suffering from psychological disorders, to discover and document first-hand experiences and stories, thus incorporating a level of community mental health into the production.

Equally important was the element of diminishing the stigma on open mental health discussion. MacKay explained how, when developing the idea, the company hesitated at the moment they realized they were drifting into mental health territory. It is this hesitation, this fear of insensitivity or taboo, that the performance aims to explore and, hopefully, reduce.

Partnered with the performance was Macrobert’s ‘Conversations for Change’ exhibition next door, which focused on the question ‘is mental health a difficult topic for everyday discussion?’. Created as a form of social intervention, featuring street chats, and ‘conversation benches’ – seating labeled ‘if I sit here I am open to conversation’, the project focused on starting and stimulating discussions, without fear of judgment or labels.

Fisk is a fine example of skillful unification of conceptual and visual depths, offering as many layers to its audience as they’re able to identify. The performance’s wordlessness further promotes universality, uniting everyone’s varying experiences with mental health under an umbrella of common, human, emotion.

Upon leaving the theater, a strong feeling of catharsis and unburdening ensues, further showing the potency of this piece. Although emotionally-tolling, I would call this gem an absolute must-see for both its highly relevant social themes, as well as its masterful visual imagery.

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