The Skriker at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester International Festival
The Skriker delves into the creases of the very things that make us up as humans. Those little folds of our lives that very rarely reach the surface are wrenched out and hung up to dry in Caryl Churchill’s 1994 play. Our own innermost states are hell-bent inside out and displayed around a concrete asylum-like set in this pandemonious progressive production by The Royal Exchange team for Manchester International Festival 2015. And it is a spectacle to behold.
Maxine Peake – still glowing from her recent role as Hamlet – whips straight back onto the Royal Exchange stage and brings all that heat with her, ploughing it into an excruciatingly high energy performance as a demonic shape-shifter from another world who feeds off of human states of longing and emotion.
Peake’s fluid transitions between bag-lady to American Fat Cat, childhood innocence to sleazeball manipulator leave us suddenly questioning who to trust in our own lives. The two teen mothers, Josie and Lilly are a dual-operated reactionary platform for those audience perceptions; the purist vs. cynic- most of us left puzzled somewhere in between.
That crevice between two places, the grey area, those innermost creases are a common theme for the production on every level. The theatre itself is decorated with trees and shrubs, startlingly different from the actual set- a harsh concrete cell. There are the exposed flames of candles dancing with shadow from dim lighting, the reality and fantasy of this magical character, themes of good vs. evil, heaven and hell, up and down… around and around without an interval to pause for breath and then it suddenly ends and you are left reeling.
The whole whistle-stop tour through other worlds was brought to a crescendo in the pivotal banquet scene. A macabre and grandiose buffet of body parts was served around the audience as the Skriker played Queen to her curious subjects. The Brechtian dismembering of the fourth wall had the audience seated on the set throughout and this scene completely immersed us into the feast as we were escorted and twirled about the room by these curiosities. They were certainly dressed to kill too, in pigeon winged hats, an excessively hairy wolf-man with no eyes and even one unfortunate fellow with a giant ear stuck to the top of his bald head (this was the only moment I was rudely interrupted during the whole 1 hour 45 by my slightly odd sense of humour. Having done a lot of acting myself all I could think about was this actor pottering about back stage trying to find someone to stick this enormous ear to his head…).
The soundscape accompanying the banquet scene was equally as impressive as the production. The music was composed by Antony Hegarty (from Antony and the Johnsons) and the chorus of girls who vocalised that part of the script, particularly the young lady whose body parts were being served up for supper were bone-chilling (Sorry.)
On the subject of puns I must say that the poet in me was ecstatic that not a lot (any?) of the back flipping phrases and double meaning soliloquies were cut from the script. There are some serious linguistic gymnastics that only fuelled the fire of this contemporary blast of non-naturalism. The somersaulting speech was reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s Renfield and his babblings of bedlam and the power of blood.
There were other parallels to Dracula too, particularly the all-powerful being overpowering young women. Except in true Churchill style- the all-powerful being *is* a woman. Feminism and the rejection of strong male characters are one of the only consistencies in The Skriker. We follow two young women and their journeys as mothers, as well as exploring their sisterly bond with each other, potential postnatal psychosis and on top of all of that Mother Nature is heading for total ecological meltdown.
The attention to detail on the subject particularly through the choreography was a pleasure to watch (I managed to tear my eyes away from the main action once or twice), one pairing (male and female) had the woman put her high heels on the man’s hands and stood behind his shoulders while he knelt down and literally ‘did the legwork’ for her.
These messages of female empowerment and a woman’s struggle for power over her own life are what leaves the lasting impression of horror on the brain as you leave the theatre, abruptly finding out that neither Lilly or Josie won over the Skriker and neither ever really had a chance. Neither good nor evil prevailed and the world was probably going to blow up anyway.