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Back to Back, Fishman Back to Back, Fishman
photo Bruce Gladwin
This is the story of an unravelling of progress and evolution. It shows that forward is only one direction we might go: is a forward motion better than a backward motion, or sideways? Better to crawl from the water, get up on your legs and do something sensible on dry land? The fishman went the other way. So his story is told from the end, through the middle, the accident and, finally, the beginning.

The end is death. In the dryness of the Wimmera desert, 50 year old Neil Wilson asphyxiated in his home-made waterproof fish suit—no gills, you see—having completed the journey of his life, travelling upstream while the majority rush the other way. Many people saw Neil Wilson, but never knew who he was until he died. He hung naked at the end of a rope under Toolondo Bridge, with Coke cans slung around his waist and seaweed in his hair. He was a fish on a line. He collected vinyl and plastic from the tip and sewed himself his own scaly skin, head plunged in a bucket for periods of time. His parents asked: “What are you doing with your life?” Fishman: “Something special.”

Back to Back are the right people to explore Fishman. This Geelong-based ensemble, formed in 1987, has a core of performers with an intellectual disability. Director Marcia Ferguson worked with the young cast on this contemporary story, making links with older tales of the Indigenous Bunyip and other monsters. The script and performance style allow and embrace quirky, individual characters who emerge from a strong and focused ensemble and slip back again into their collective base. There are 14 people on stage, then 17. Unusual nowadays to see casts of this size. Unusual to see such a diverse group, all intently focused on their fishwork.

Grainy film of dry land and water is projected onto a corrugated fibreglass curve that defines the performance space—almost the inside of a water tank. Another film shows people in plastic/vinyl fishsuits running in circles, flapping around in forlorn black and white paddocks, stranded on the dry land of normality. Fish out of water. This is also the surface for watery lighting that switches to hard, expressionist angles and shadows.

A live video feed at the side of the stage produces images of little gold fish in a tank, a face distorted through the water and glass, a little puppet motorbike—the bike that Neil should not have ridden the day he crashed, acquiring brain injuries 10 years before his death.

Sounds percolate throughout—murky splashing, thick water sounds, bubbles and breath, popping and flapping. Grabs from radio and TV intrude a hard ‘real life’ sound, so thin and banal against the richness of the abnormal, the interior world in which fishman floats.

All this technology, all these people—it comes together seamlessly and backwards. Good stage management helps, but Back to Back have the ability to create a space in their performances where everything is alright, even a gutted fish left on the stage floor at the end.

Fishman Back to Back Theatre, director Marcia Ferguson, choreographer Phillip Adams, designer Anna Tregloan, film Rhian Hinkley, performers Tara Allitt, Adam Berry, Mark Deans, Rita Halabarec, Nicki Holland, Voula Hristeas, Simon Laherty, Sandy Landers, Shannon Lewellin, Meridin Miller, Joel Pollard, Eric Rebernik, Darren Riches, Jamie Senior, Kylie Trevarthen & Bonnie Trotter; Blakiston Theatre, Geelong Performing Arts Centre, Aug 30-Sept 1

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 37

© Mary-Ann Robinson; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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