I have never longed so much for the moment I could leave the theatre as when watching the Royal Exchange production of Caryl Churchill’s 1994 drama, The Skriker, that really should have been left un-revived rather than being the centrepiece of the 2015 Manchester International Festival.
The production has attracted uniformly adulatory reviews, and it has to be said that the staging by Lizzie Clachan and Maxine Peake’s central performance are superlative. It’s the play that’s the problem.
The eponymous Skriker is a shape-shifting demon from a fairy underworld who speaks in a Finnegan’s Wake-style torrent of free association, alliteration and punning word play that is first revealed in a lengthy and mind-numbing opening monologue that left me with a headache. Here’s a taste:
So I spin the sheaves shoves shivers into golden guild and geld and if she can’t guessing game and safety match my name then I’ll take her no mistake no mister no missed her no mist no miss no me no …
If you like that sort of thing, there’s plenty more. It does begin to make some kind of sense as the play progresses – it’s just that there is not much sense to be made of Caryl Churchill’s script.
The Skriker haunts modern-day urban England, adopting various human guises (including as a highly-improbable American who doesn’t understand how a TV works). The Skriker is very bad, inciting cannibalism, and preying on two teenage girls – Lily, who is pregnant, and Josie, who is banged up in a psychiatric hospital for having killed her baby.
The action shifts between the present-day – with glancing references to war, poverty, homelessness and selfishness – and the underworld where lives are limitless and time is immense – much of it filled with savagery and violence, debauchery and drunkenness. In terms of staging, the high point must be the underworld banquet attended by captured human souls, including Josie who leads the Skriker’s ghastly entourage in singing, ‘Where’s my head? Where’s my arm? Where’s my leg? In a coup de theatre she ends up crmbling to dust that falls, shimmering, to the ground.
At one point Josie sings, ‘My mother killed me and put me in pies’, and Churchill has certainly stuffed a lot of ideas into this particular pie. The trouble is – it’s like a spinning-wheel, sparking off in all directions, but with none of the ideas fully-developed. The moment when the Skriker (appearing as a tipsy American woman in a trendy bar) asks Lily to explain how television works seems pregnant with meaning – modern technology is so beyond our understanding that we regard it as magic – but, then we’re off some other flight fancy. Many reviewers have made much of this passage, suggesting that, written in 1994, it foreshadows present concern about global warming and ecological disaster – but it is just one brief moment in a play that ends up a tsunami of incoherent, undeveloped ideas:
Have you noticed the large number of meteorological phenomena lately? Earthquakes. Volcanoes. Drought. Apocalyptic meteorological phenomena. The increase of sickness. It was always possible to think whatever your personal problem, there’s always nature. Spring will return, even if it’s without me. Nobody loves me but at least it’s a sunny day. This had been a comfort to people as long as they’ve existed. But it’s not available any more. Sorry. Nobody loves me and the sun’s going to kill me. Spring will return and nothing will grow.
An infinitely more successful work that combines ideas about language with an apocalyptic vision of the sustaining power of myth and magic in an England reduced to subsistence after catastrophe has engulfed humankind is Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.
I came away from The Skriker battered by the experience and marvelling that so much energy and talent could be invested in presenting a play so full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.
The Skriker: Extract
Maxine Peake reads the ‘ecological disaster’ passage quoted above. (BBC)