Maxine Peake’s artistic reunion with director Sarah Frankcom after The Masque Of Anarchy and Hamlet has, predictably, proved to be one of the hottest tickets at this year’s Manchester International Festival, although it’s worth noting that it continues at the Royal Exchange for a couple of weeks beyond the end of the Festival if you’re searching for tickets.
The Skriker is an outlandish and demanding piece so, in that sense, it’s easy enough to see why Caryl Churchill’s furious and committed play has not been at all easy to catch since its debut at the National Theatre in 1994 (when, incidentally, Kathryn Hunter, recently seen at HOME in Kafka’s Monkey, took the title role). On the other hand, it’s just as easy to see why the role of the skriker – a shape-shifting faerie or spirit, which appears variously as an old woman, a child and a young man – would appeal to Peake, an actress who has always seemed determined to push her performances right to the edge and beyond.
But even before Peake appears on stage for the first time, delivering a daunting and dislocating monologue while all manner of strange creatures do all manner of strange things in the shadows, you’ve been shaken up by the sight of the Exchange’s entrance and bar area transformed into a rather lovely, but inevitably slightly threatening, wood. The transformation continues as you make your way inside the space, only to find that all of the familiar downstairs seating has been removed (at no little cost to the theatre, I would assume), with only a couple of dozen slightly petrified-looking patrons seated at several long tables which also function throughout as the stage, while some cave-like constructions replace the usual entrances and exits (and their signage, which makes the ‘blackouts’ more of an accurate description).
Peake’s opening monologue is a barely-penetrable piece of wordplay that only gradually begins to make some sort of skewed sense. But it’s undeniably compelling and evocatively alliterative, until the action eventually also involves two young and vulnerable human girls Josie (Laura Elsworthy) and Lily (Juma Sharkah), who is pregnant.
For reasons that are not really clear beyond a sort of general malice, and a more understandable discontent with humankind’s treatment of the Earth, the skriker has set its sights on them. Believe me, this is not a being you’d want to be on the wrong side of, or involved with at all, if possible. By turns needy, desperate, spiteful, and wretched, even darkly regal in one particularly hellish scene set underground in the Faeries’ lair, it’s a challengingly physical role for any actor to undertake and Peake rises to the task as impressively as you would expect.
With a subtly disconcerting original score composed by Nico Muhly and Antony (of Mercury Prize winners, Antony and the Johnsons), plus a brilliantly murky set designed by Lizzie Clachan, The Skriker is a boldly dark, doomy and questioning affair that will undoubtedly split audience opinion.
Whatever your personal view may be, though, it’s commendable of Peake to use her popularity to draw in audiences for such a challenging piece, and further proof of the value of Manchester International Festival’s bold mission to explore the sort of adventurous, even artistically dangerous, work that we might not otherwise get a chance to see.
By Kevin Bourke
Photos by Jonathan Keenan