History. It’s just one fucking thing after another, right? Wrong – at least if Danny Braverman has anything to do with it. In Wot? No Fish!! Braverman depicts history as a helix: spiralling steadily upwards, seeming to return again and again to the same place, only to discover that in fact the world has changed. The past can be present, but never in quite the same form.
The same goes for the art that sits at the centre of Braverman and director Nick Philippou’s show. Wot? No Fish!! tells the story of Braverman’s Great Uncle Ab, a Jewish shoemaker raising his family in the East End of London. Ordinary enough, you might think. What is extraordinary about this particular family history, though, is the astonishing document of his life that Ab left behind. For almost 60 years, Ab drew weekly pictures on his wage packets for his beloved wife Celie; love letters in another form, sketching both the ecstasies and tragedies of their life together.
Wot? No Fish!! is their story, played out against the tumultuous backdrop of the early to mid 20th century, and the story of Braverman discovering these images decades later. As Braverman sifts through Ab’s wage packets, the past is located in the now, revealing that what we are so often looking for in history – particularly family history – is a trace of ourselves. The way in which Braverman shares these drawings with us, pointing out details and making gentle speculations, makes the piece about him and about us just as much as it is about Ab and Celie. With so much of this relationship inaccessible to us, we like Braverman are left to colour in around the edges.
The drawings themselves are tiny yet oddly exquisite. As Braverman shows them to us one by one, we can observe Ab developing as an artist, starting with basic doodles of kitchen utensils and graduating to acutely observed scenes of domestic life. We see Ab and Celie as newlyweds in the 1920s and then as the parents of two sons; we see them battle through the relentless anxiety of the war years; we watch as they grow old together, Celie barely ageing a day in Ab’s loving depictions of her. And perhaps most extraordinary is the compulsive honesty of Ab’s art, which is as likely to show heartache as joy.
Given the huge scope of Braverman’s inheritance, this show can only ever be a fragment – a partial image, like Ab’s drawings. But the care taken in the selection and crafting of the piece is palpable. Braverman welcomes us warmly into his family history, making the audience feel like family by extension. We could all be part of one massive Friday night dinner, trading anecdotes over the fish balls (yes, contrary to the exclamation of the title, there is fish). Community, a quality that theatre so often reaches for, is created simply and unfussily.
Like two strands of a double helix, simplicity and complexity are bound together. Yes, on one level this is just about one family, laughing and crying and struggling like us all. But through this one family and the particularities of their everyday life, Wot? No Fish!! opens out into ideas that are much bigger than itself: love, the value of art, the movement of history, the finding of meaning and hope in narrative, and how, even when the path stretches treacherously ahead of us, we find the optimism to go on.
Read our interview with writer and performer Danny Braverman.