Theatre reviewing is an odd job. For the most part, you are asked to form a response to a play within a matter of hours, leaving little time to ponder the whys and wherefores. It’s a tricky task.

But there are a handful of theatrical experiences which demand a longer gestation. Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem comes to mind, as does Pinter’s The Homecoming. These are both great, glorious works of art, plays I turn over in my mind to this day. But I can’t claim to have mastered their genius as the curtain came down.

Last night, after seeing the world premiere of Rory Mullarkey’s first full length play at the Royal Exchange, I knew I would need time to think. And so I slept on it. My dreams were littered with mud, blood and holy fools, echoes of Mullarkey’s narrative booming in my subconscious. I was chased, I felt afraid, I ran from unknown terrors and I didn’t know where I was.

When I woke, it was with a sense of relief and a dawning realisation that Mullarkey’s Cannibals had lodged itself in my brain. Even if I didn’t understand all he was trying to say, it was clear that here was a theatrical talent.

Mullarkey says that the genesis for Cannibals came from a trip to the Museum of Modern History in Moscow. “I came across a photograph of these people in a village in the 1930s looking quite dour and the caption was ‘Cannibals near Perm’, and that struck me massively. I wasn’t thinking at the time that I wanted to write a play about this but I remember staring at this picture. They didn’t have chunks of leg sticking out of their mouth or anything. It was just some people standing there.”

This is perhaps all you need to know ahead of seeing Cannibals for yourself. Yes, I could repeat the publicity blurb for the production, tell you it’s about “death, love and consumerism in the 21st century”. I could even reiterate that Cannibals is a “bold and thrilling new play”. But I don’t want to give anything away. I’ll keep it general.

Ony Uhiara as Lizaveta

During the play, there are moments of great insight, scenes where Mullarkey’s obviously poetic language moves and sways the audience. And there are monologues of seemingly staggering simplicity which veil darker thoughts and experiences. And yes, there are parts that don’t work. Long passages of rhythmic beauty interspersed with realistic dialogue jarred uncomfortably and the lack of an interval prevented the public from (excuse the pun) digesting what they had already seen. But there is no denying Mullarkey’s ingenious use of different languages, nor his presentation of horrific acts in a matter of fact way.

Mullarkey has much to thank his director for – the rising talent of Michael Longhurst whose CV includes award-winning productions at London’s Royal Court as well as Jake Gyllenhaal’s American stage debut in New York. And plaudits are due to the five-strong cast, in particular Ony Uhiara, who in the central role of Lizaveta never leaves the stage. A special mention must also be made for Ricky Champ. His portrayal of Josef the Fool was expertly balanced, never descending into idiocy yet managing to convey the essence of the character in the nuanced delivery of just a few words.

To be honest, I still don’t really know what to think about Cannibals, except to say that I’ll be chewing it over for some time to come. But that’s OK. Great theatre isn’t about “getting” it straightaway. And maybe that’s what this is.

Review by Helen Nugent


What: Cannibals

Where: Royal Exchange, Manchester

When: until April 27, 2013

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