Theatre review: The Skriker @ Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

The Manchester International Festival brought the city plenty of thrills and spills and it’s fair to say some of the highlights of this year’s feast will not be forgotten in a hurry.

One such highlight was the Skriker, starring local lass Maxine Peake who was once again directed by Sarah Frankcom, who previously worked with the actress at MIF two years ago.

Written by Caryl Churchill, it was first produced nearly twenty years ago and is as fitting today as it was back then, because it fearlessly addressed themes of morality, nature, life, the end of human existence and the environment as know it.

Hearing the usher tell audience goers as they entered a dark tunnel at ground level in the Royal Exchange, ‘once you go in there’s no coming back’, was particularly alarming, but in the context of Manchester International Festival it somehow becomes acceptable.

Once light came flooding in at the end of the tunnel, it was a shock and surprise to see the ground level  of the Royal Exchange, a theatre in the round, had been completely transformed into a large dungeon like room, with grey stained walls and long tables laid out with chairs dotted around, and several darkened doorways, plus a few small, alcove like stages, set into the walls of the room.

Looking up, tiers of seating filled with other audience goers looked down onto the ground floor audience, and bright lights flickered. It was disorientating to say the least and the transformation was both shocking and stunning, for it looked like a scene for horror.

In the radically changed surroundings, audience goers were left in the thick of it,  the usual barrier between performer and observer was literally non-existent, as it appeared that this straight running performance of ninety minutes was going to play out on the tables laid out in front.

The Skriker, played by Peake, an ancient fairy, who has become sick and blames its denigrating state on the errors of humans and the world around.

The title character, who has lived for a long time, ‘long before England was even an idea’ is not man, nor woman. It is a being with the ability to morph into many things.

Poised for revenge against mankind, the Skriker hungers for the vulnerable and good people of the world, feeding off them and fooling prey with many different guises, granting them wishes and ‘nice things’, for which they pay the ultimate price.

The Skriker is masterful in the art of manipulation and distraction.

The world is in a state of disconnect and survival is key. There is a friendship between Josie and Lily, the other main characters, played by Laura Elsworthy and Juma Sharkah, whom the Skriker runs rings around.

Josie, endures her dark days in and out of a mental hospital, the underworld and the real world, which all become blurred eventually, whilst her fresh-faced, pregnant teenage friend cannot understand the horrors Josie has seen, because she is blinded and filled with hope naivety.

The division between the girls is perpetuated by their lack of understanding and agreement with each other, stirred further by dealings with the Skriker, who maintains their attentions, and each falls foul and in favour, in one way or another, wowed by its charm and disgusted by it.

Costumes for the Skriker were minimal, except for the changing of a jacket or the wearing of a hat and sunglasses and Peake switched effortlessly between accents and characters convincingly so.

The choreography and movement of Peake and other characters in the play merely enhanced the whole experience even more so. 

There was one particularly unforgettable scene, in which a dozen or so ‘zombie’ like beings floated out around the audience, convulsing and twisting, with each utterance of the Skriker’s words, this left the audience helplessly exposed to the uncomfortable experience of the madness around them.

Special effects were minimal but used with great impact; the Skriker ‘lorded’ it up with a ‘possessed’ army in a banquet scene, where they gobbled, hissed and fitted their way through a dinner of human flesh and blood – hedonistic and unrepentant as the head of a human,  limbs and other body parts were passed on a platter among them.

The stage setting and costumes did much to bring scenes to life and make it all the more strange and other worldly, much to the credit of Lizzie Clachan, the designer.

A feeling of mania and anger was maintained throughout the play, but often the environmental message, which the online trailer so heavily pushed slips into the background and it becomes mostly about these people, these characters and their failings. 

They have an inability to resist the Skriker, perhaps a symbol of all that is not good and they revisit it continually, unable to change, make concise decisions and take responsibility.

If anything, it was due to this that the world’s became blurred and they could not see what was happening around them.

And perhaps this was the strongest point in the play, in relation to nature and the world-  when it comes down to it,  it is about people making the right and wrong decisions in life and for the world and if enough of the wrong decisions are continuously made by people, then we as humans are collectively responsible for there being nothing left.

It is with that that I am reminded of Lilly’s final scene, when she succumbs to the Skriker, sacrificing herself and is turned to nothing but dust.

It was certainly a night not to forget in a hurry.

The Skriker is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre until August 1. Ticket availability is limited, call the box office on 0161 833 9833 for details.

Picture courtesy of Jonathan Keenan via Royal Exchange Theatre, with thanks.

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