Politics and Planet Collide in this Comically Absurd Drama – ‘Yellowfin’: Review

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Image Credit: Helen Maybanks

★★★✰✰

Marek Horn’s new play, Yellowfin, is a comically absurd exploration of a very real threat. The premise of the play is clear: “There were fish, and then there weren’t fish. Simple as that”. The underlying questions of the play are: Where did the fish go? How did the fish go? Why did the fish go?

Politically, this is a play about the arrogance of imperialist governments. Economically, it is a critical warning about the excesses of capitalism and industrial fishing. Socially, it is an existential exploration of humankind’s relentless desire for knowledge and power. Dramatically, these issues manage to combine and create moments of real tenderness and deep pathos throughout the play. And, the play’s disturbingly hysterical climax is a fitting final image (and warning) in this absurd drama about our current climate.

Anisha Fields’ set consists of a single committee room on Capitol Hill. A desk, where three senators sit, marks one side of the room; another desk, where a single individual sits, marks the opposite side of the room. Audiences sit on either side of this red-carpeted stage, which runs down the centre of the auditorium. As such, we witness the contents of the play unfold like a tennis match, our eyes flickering back and forth between tribunal member and defendant. When the committee hearing breaks for a recess, an aquatic blue light swamps the stage and the characters move in slow motion. A gurgling sound stands by waiting to signal the resumption of the action. Director Ed Madden succeeds in creating an effective contrast between the slow calm of the oceanic blue, and the hostile atmosphere of the committee room.

The disappearance of the fish is both a comical and a serious threat. On one hand, there is a lot of highly charged, sexual talk about the “Flakeage” of fish—the part of fish that cannot be reproduced in “squib” (an artificial substitute). Yet, there is a more existential threat that looms over the disappearance of the fish.

When the potential threat of weapons of mass destruction presented itself to the United States in the early 2000s, the then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, delivered what has since become a notorious speech about known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, and so on and so forth. Horn appears to satirise this rhetoric when Marianne (Nancy Crane) delivers a spiralling list of questions, derivative of the over-arching trinity of questions that underpin the play (“Where did they go? How did they go? Why did they go?”). Her windy monologue concludes in a withdrawn and desperate sigh. Largely, we gather, the significance of the disappearing fish lies in the sea of unknowns that surround the event.

Knowledge is clearly power in this play. The kind of power which, whether collective or individual, is ultimately corruptive. It is corruptive by means of the absurd lengths humans will go to in order to achieve it. Calantini (Joshua James) recognises this, in one of the play’s clumsier moments, as an innate problem with humanity. Stephen (Beruce Khan) is so set on demonstrating this vice, that he remarks aloud how the moral arc of the universe will bend towards him. And Roy (Nicholas Day), the play’s most endearingly comic character, ultimately also fails to resist the selfish allure of knowledge.

Horn’s play is politically and ecologically pertinent. The precarious issues it raises demand serious attention. Yet, by way of offering any answers, this play falls short. Yellowfin is an absurd, comical, and at times strangely touching performance, underpinned by a thought-provoking issue.

Words by Jack Rondeau

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