Frieda Lee in The Inconsequential Lives of Little Fish

A delicious blend of style and substance

Review: Frieda, Sam and Friends, The Inconsequential Lives of Little Fish ·
The Blue Room Theatre 11 September ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·

A theatre maker’s work will inevitably reflect their life’s journey and perspective on the world. The richer their experiences, the more likely their work will offer substantial food for thought.

This is especially the case with The Inconsequential Lives of Little Fish, written by Frieda Lee. Before graduating with a Bachelor of Performing Arts from WAAPA in 2016, Lee had picked up an arts/law degree, a Masters of Human Rights and experience working for NGOs in the Asia Pacific region.

Her latest play, a collaboration with Sam Hayes, reveals the horrific stories of people working in and around the international fishing industry. Add poetic writing, clever design and compelling performances and you have a delicious blend of style and substance.

What springs to mind when you think about seafood? Perhaps family feasts during summer holidays? Just like the Disney version of fairy tales, that is the sanitised version.

For about $450, some Thai boat owners actually buy fisherman. The men and boys are often Rohingya refugees from countries such as Cambodia, Bangladesh, Laos and Myanmar. Brokers organise their passage and help them find work in return for fees to be repaid from future wages. Most end up trapped at sea.

Slave ships, plying international waters off Thailand, scoop up huge quantities of “trash fish”, infant or inedible fish ground into fishmeal for farmed prawns – prawns which can end up in Australian supermarket freezers.

Concerns about the practice – rife with stories of murder, cruelty, torture and abuse –culminated in an Australian Government inquiry last year. The Inconsequential Lives of Little Fish was devised as a response to the inquiry, which has recommended that certain entities report on modern slavery risks in their supply chains.

While these facts have informed and inspired the play, its narrative centres on one family and it is told using the conventions of a fairy tale. At first, its magic realism is heart-warming: a poor fisherman catches a talking fish who begs to be set free… yes, just like The Fisherman and His Wife by the Grimm Brothers.

In that original fairy tale, the wife insists the fisherman go back and ask the magical fish to fulfil ever grander wishes, culminating in the desire for God-like powers. She ends up back in the seaside hovel, of course, just to spell out that greed and lust for wealth and power are bad.

While The Inconsequential Lives of Little Fish takes the fairytale’s opening premise, the magical fish promises and delivers a wife (who can shape-shift between fish and human). It is a love story – until there’s a storm and a sick baby.

Both Little Fish (Frieda Lee) and her fisherman (Sam Hayes) end up in desperate circumstances, written to reflect the experiences of real life modern slavery. We come to see that the fishermen are not unlike the fish, who are captured against their will; little fish, who are used to fatten those higher up the food chain.

In essence, this play shows us the tragedy of what happens when those in the commercial fishing industry value power and wealth over human dignity and life.

A man kissing a fish puppet
The versatile Sam Hayes (foreground) switches between seven characters. Photo: Susie Blatchford.

The evocative and dynamic set (designed by Maeli Cherel and built by Etain Boscato) features a wooden structure that doubles as a fence and a boat. Paperbark, used for fish, harness Hayes’ experience as a puppeteer. My favourite part of the set was a rifle suspended on a rope. When pushed, it swung back and forth across the stage, creating an illusion of the boat lurching violently in rough seas.

Hayes’ versatility was equally as impressive. He switches between seven characters – ranging from the kind fisherman to a cruel ageing woman, powerful senator and sadistic captain.

The play’s final moments are stunning. I won’t give away their trick… but it was a master stroke. At the same time as lifting the mood, it flipped fantasy into reality, reminding us that real, vulnerable people are at the heart of this story.

The Inconsequential Lives of Little Fish plays the Blue Room until September 22.

Pictured top: Frieda Lee in ‘The Inconsequential Lives of Little Fish’. Photo: Susie Blatchford.

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