Fishskin Trousers is a humble play, with just three actors who barely move from their spots onstage. The set is simple and delicate – a circle of pebbles and other assortments that might be found on a beach, binds the characters in a ring of shared fate. Large stones and empty plastic cartons serve as seating.
Elisabeth Kuti’s story is intricate and endearing. Three characters separated by centuries, are connected by their strange allurement to Orford Ness. First, rustic Mab, a local spinster, introduces her encounter with the mythical sea creature “The Wildman”. Next Ben, an Australian scientist, arrives in Orford Ness during the height of the Cold War and finally Mog, a depressed schoolteacher, is drawn home after the devastating news that her child might be born with a disability. Each character dresses according to the era they represent.
Their stories entwine through a curious mix of tragedy, death and loneliness. One by one, they row out to the island where the Wildman cries like a siren. The way that Robert Price directs the storytelling is fitting: with the characters feeding us chunks of their story on rotation, pausing mid-emotion as another character interjects. The transition takes place with impressive speed. Price uses a clever tactic for this with the other characters holding a freeze frame, whilst the speaker tells their tale.
The ask of the actors is large – delivering a monologue with no music, movement, interaction or elaborate stage-set to distract from their performance. Though each of them tells their stories with investment, Brett Brown as Ben gave a standout performance. Something about him was engaging and real, managing to deliver such a long monologue with a sense of it being a normal act. Mab is amusing as a simple, outcast spinster, but her old English accent needs polishing – seeming to flirt between Australian, Country Bumpkin and a neutral voice.
With Fishskin Trousers being such a bare production, it could perhaps do with some cutting to keep audiences engaged. I struggled to pay attention to three, detailed stories for the whole duration of the show, since there is nothing to break up the listening. That said, it was refreshing to be challenged to engage with something so stripped back, when we are so often bombarded with a sensory overload.
Towards the end, there are one or two moments where the characters make eye contact, at points where their stories overlap. I wanted more of this to break up the predictability of the characters each talking in turn, for relatively equal durations.
Something about the tone of Kuti’s writing jars with me at times. The way the three plotlines interweave is subtle and clever but petty as it may sound; I got frustrated with the play’s use of verbs. The way the characters talk about themselves in the present tense, remarking, “I exclaim”, “I scoff”, felt so unnatural that it tainted my enjoyment of the monologues. It reminded me of a school child who has been told they must not repeat the same word too often, so takes to the dictionary for every synonym of ‘said’.
Overall, Fishkin Trousers is an intense play for an audience member, but worth bearing with for the delicacy of the storyline.
Fishskin Trousers is playing at Park Theatre until November 11 2017.
Photo: David Gill