An adaptation of legendary Taiwanese writer Huang Chunming’s short story, Fish is a simple yet profound tale tackling masculinity, familial love and social mobility. Taiwan’s Shinehouse Theatre’s production further impresses by seamlessly integrating British Sign Language and by having the lead character, a young boy named Acha, as a puppet – whose masterful manipulation exaggerates his youthful innocence. It is, therefore, frustrating to see all of the nuance of this fantastic theatre piece lost in translation. The cast converse simultaneously in a Taiwanese dialect and BSL with English subtitles projected behind. Unfortunately the English subtitles are often out-of-sync or obtusely phrased. The discomfort is something you can eventually adjust to, but the shortness of this piece, it is only 40 minutes long, leaves many confused by the confrontational ending without the context of earlier dialogue.
The show begins with a short scene where a ~13 year old Acha is eagerly cycling to his grandfather’s house proudly carrying a freshly caught and cooked fish. Immediately the cast show their skill by manipulating a full sized Acha puppet and conveying the physicality of a young boy riding an oversized, rusty bike up a steep hill. The scene then transitions into a long and important dialogue between grandfather and grandson when they last met, a year or so earlier.
During the dialogue you find out Acha has been sent off to learn the carpentry trade under a gruelling master, in the hopes of earning a better living. The grandfather is heartbroken to learn about his much beloved grandson’s brutal treatment. Despite the guilt for arranging this training, the grandfather clearly still believes in the better life that will be unlocked from becoming a craftsmen. The better life is epitomised, some-what jokingly, in being able to afford a deep-sea fish, a rare commodity in the mountainous region where the simple farmer lives. This section relies heavily on body language to express humour, regret and admiration that constitute the complex relationship between the two. Disappointingly, the lapses in concentration whilst you wait for the next line of subtitles or infer their meaning often left audience members missing key aspects of the duo’s relationship.
Returning to the cycling Acha, we soon discover that he has foolishly dropped the fish and is distraught to find it trampled in the road. For Acha, the dream of returning triumphantly to his home village, fish in hand, had been the only thing keeping him going during his traumatic training. Failing at such a late stage is devastating. Arriving home, Acha tries to avoid his grandfather – who, conversely, is overjoyed to see his grandson again – prompting the old farmer to break the ice by asking “Did you bring a fish home?”
The expertly crafted dialogue leading to the regretful climax lays bear the deep flaws with society’s idea of masculinity, particularly the inability to express or convey emotion. The grandfather’s pride masking his guilt and self-doubt combines self-destructively with the grandson’s internalised trauma and misplaced sense of failure. This is Fish’s European debut and likely needs to adjust to a non-mandarin speaking audience. Once the gifted Shinehouse Theatre team overcomes this last obstacle it will be the pick of any festival, Fringe or otherwise. For now, familiarise yourself with the story beforehand and enjoy the craftsmanship with which this show is presented.
Poignant, ambitious and experimental, Shinehouse Theatre’s Fish is a beautifully crafted piece that sadly falls at the last hurdle.
Fish is on at Cairns Lecture Theatre at Summerhall
At 12:00 until 25th August
Book tickets here
Image: Terry Lin