Review: The Skriker, Manchester International Festival

Theatrically, The Skriker has got the bloody lot. This play reminds us what an astonishing writer – a manipulator of words – Caryl Churchill is, and what a fascinating collaborator: the script demands abstract movement, music, song, visual spectacle. Sarah Frankcom’s revival delivers them all up on big silver platters (sometimes literally).

She’s assembled an excellent creative team: the ever-marvellous Maxine Peake masters the looping linguistic wordplay, finding chilly sense in The Skriker’s punning, seemingly nonsensical flow, the reason in the rhymes and rhythms. Nico Muhly and Antony (Hegarty) provide brain-teasingly weird vocal arrangements for a community choir, and a score that goes from spooky to savage fever-dream with ease. And, under Imogen Knight’s choreography, the ensemble cast skulk or spasm, simmer sinisterly or boil over with abandon. It’s sensual, and cerebral, and just what this difficult play needs.

The plot, then: an ancient fairy, alternately needy for love and powerfully bent on vengeance – that’s the Skirker, played by Peake – latches on to two teenage mums. There’s Josie, institutionalised after killing her baby (a wonderfully brittle performance by Laura Elsworthy, both hard and fragile), and the warm-hearted, generous mother-to-be Lily (a hugely appealing Juma Sharkah). They’re struggling in this world; the Skriker eventually tempts the troubled Josie down into her underworld.

Here is hedonistic yet hollow fairy kingdom, of frantic spirits whose wild revels are attractive and horrifying. The ancient spirits feed off the memories and emotions of the humans they draw down. The form, as so often with Churchill, aids and adds to the story. When we descend to this underworld – really wonderfully created in this production – the storytelling mode shifts to opera. A wild, destructive banquet is heightened by the high-octane, musical intensity. Add the desperate, juddering dancing and eccentric costumes – with Peake as some kind of punkish, puckish queen – and it makes for a vividly heady, wasting cocktail.

But the real world scenes are also ghosted by this underworld. Various strange, folkloric creatures – named in the programme things like Jennie Greenteeth, Kelpie, Rawheadandbloodybones – seem to lead more mundane figures, holding buckets or telescopes, on a sinister dance. At first, I struggled to align them with the story: too abstract, too disconnected, they seemed to add little. It was a dancing man who made sense of it, for me: he grooves logically to some bongo music we all see and hear – but then he doesn’t stop. He dances for the rest of the show, soon resembling the kind of man you cross the street to avoid, moving to the music in his head, possessed by madness – or mad spirits. Throughout the space and the play we see silent real-world individuals who are just as troubled and shadowed as Josie, motored by dark forces. It’s an analogy for mental health perhaps, or a sickness in society we don’t care for, have failed to heal, that trembles around us.

In the publicity and programme notes, Peake and Frankcom are insistent about the play’s prophetic nature – first performed in 1994, it foreshadows the oncoming global warming induced apocalypse. It is Gaia that is sick. This is a compelling reading, and a solid reason to revisit The Skriker.

It’s certainly there in the text, which looks to future where the planet is ravaged – “spring will return and nothing will grow” – and our current generation castigated for its neglect. It makes sense of the Skriker, too, as a pissed-off nature spirit, angry at a human race ruining the planet. But I think without the contextualising noise pointing out of that, it wouldn’t necessarily be the chief reading of The Skriker; I felt it spoke as strongly to the notion of internal demons, how we deal with our darker sides and troubled minds, as much as global issues. Which is why it’s brilliant, of course.

The set brings (some) of the audience into the action on the floor of the theatre, heightening the already thick, potent atmosphere; I was sat on one of the long tables on the stage that the actors stride up and down. It may unsettle some – you might get your head stroked by a dark fairy – but I loved it. You can see the actors’ ribs moving at this proximity. Thrilling stuff.

Not that the show is an entirely unqualified success. I re-read the play recently, and I suspect it helped me follow the plot, which can be opaque, especially given the surreal cartwheels of the Skriker’s speech patterns and the multi-pronged, multi-media approach to staging and form. If you’re striving simply to follow the skeleton of the plot, the additional movement-only characters may simply read as additional obfuscation.

Peake is bloody brilliant, charming and petulant, terrifying and seductive, as this shape-shifting role demands. You could watch her all day; she rises to this fierce, spiky, sad role terrifically. But in the longer speeches – notably the opening lengthy monologue – I felt Frankcom could have pushed for a faster pace. This wildly gambolling, free-associative writing should feel like a word-vomit, an unbroken stream gushing out; it’s rather too slow and steady here, and risks sounding ponderous and a tad affected.

That aside, Peake really does put a bloody beating heart at the centre of this intense hurricane of a play, and confirms – as if we needed confirmation – that she’s one of the most exciting and fearless actors of our age. Churchill’s writing – and this production – are tapping into primal fears, be they ecological or maternal or psychological or societal; whether you finetooth comb The Skriker and come out with a theory, or just let the whole diseased carnival wash other you, it would be hard to leave unstirred.

Where next?