'The Skriker': Theater Review

Skriker - H 2015
Courtesy of Royal Exchange Theatre

Skriker - H 2015

Vivid revival of a grim fairy tale with an eco-feminist twist

British national treasure Maxine Peake plays a shape-shifting demonic spirit in Caryl Churchill's nightmarish horror fable, featuring music by Antony Hegarty and Nico Muhly.

Touching on infanticide, cannibalism, postnatal depression and impending ecological disaster, Caryl Churchill's magic-realist horror fable The Striker is one of the hot tickets at this year's Manchester International Festival. Tony Kushner has called Churchill "the greatest living English-language playwright," but more germane to the buzz around this limited-run revival is the presence of local heroine Maxine Peake (The Theory of Everything), a household name in Britain and virtual superstar in her native Manchester, embodying the city's proud tradition of homegrown talent and fierce rivalry with London. Peake also has a fruitful track record with the Royal Exchange's artistic director Sarah Frankcom, starring as Hamlet in Frankcom's cross-dressing, award-winning production last year.

First staged at London's National Theatre in 1994, with Kathryn Hunter in the title role, The Skriker made its New York debut two years later, featuring a young Philip Seymour Hoffman in the ensemble cast. Though considered one of Churchill's less accessible plays, it has enjoyed regular revivals ever since, possibly due to its increasingly relevant ecological theme. A crisp 100-minute single act, Frankcom's in-the-round production takes place in a kind of cavernous stone dungeon designed by Lizzie Clachlan, which doubles as both an asylum and a grand banqueting hall. Immersed in the drama, audience members on the ground level sit at sturdy wooden tables which serve as stages for much of the action.

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Elfin and androgynous, with brutally half-shaven hair, Peake crackles with malevolent electricity as the eponymous Skriker, a vengeful spirit on the hunt for human prey, apparently seeking retribution for mankind's despoiling of Mother Nature. Her targets are two young women: Josie (Laura Elsworthy), who killed her own newborn baby during an apparent mental breakdown; and Lily (Juma Sharkah), who is heavily pregnant. Both Elsworthy and Sharkah make a decent effort at fleshing out roles that are light on psychological ballast, though they inevitably pale next to the more experienced Peake, in terms of both performance and character depth.

The Skriker is a terrific creation, an ancient pagan fairy who shape-shifts throughout the drama from homeless bag lady to sweet young child, imperious goblin queen, boorish male seducer and other uncanny guises. She seduces her victims with sorcery and spells, making them vomit coins if they cooperate, or toads if they displease her. When in monologue mode, she spouts a kind of Joycean stream-of-consciousness poetry that is thick with puns, allusions and inner rhymes. Though hard to follow at times, this densely layered staccato wordplay is a signature of Churchill's canon and always adheres to a loose narrative logic. Peake makes this heavily stylized dialogue live and breathe, much like a master of Shakespearean verse.

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Onstage almost constantly, Peake gives a performance that's an impressive feat of physicality as much as memory. Changing her body language multiple times, she switches age and accent, gender and nationality, with minimal reliance on costume or makeup. Her Skriker is every frightening folkloric female made flesh: siren and she-devil, fury and femme fatale, alien and predator, banshee and Blair Witch. At times she even appears to be channeling Miranda Richardson's capricious, cackling Queen Elizabeth I from the BBC comedy series Blackadder.

Churchill conceived The Skriker as a collaborative play with music and dance elements, and Frankcom's revival is a lively pageant featuring a large multi-racial cast.  The cryptic stage directions are open to interpretation, and some of the incidental details here seem clumsy, especially a minor character who dances distractingly in the shadows for the final hour of the show. The slight score by revered New York art-pop icons Antony Hegarty and Nico Muhly is also a little underwhelming, with the exception of a rousing full-cast choral number which accompanies the banqueting scene, an orgiastic Games of Thrones interlude that is easily the most impressive set-piece of the show.

While clearly informed by feminism and Marxism, Churchill has always resisted simplistic explanations of her work. Frankcom rightly avoids imposing any narrow agenda on the play, though her production seems more focused on gender politics than on its environmental subtext, playing almost like a dysfunctional love triangle between the three female leads. Two decades on, The Skriker remains evasive and unwieldy as conventional drama, but still casts a powerful spell as a nightmarish fairy tale. A challenging night at the theater, but vividly staged and ablaze with verbal fireworks.

Cast: Maxine Peake, Juma Sharkah, Laura Elsworthy, Owen Whitelaw, Leah Walker
Director: Sarah Frankcom
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Set and costume designer: Lizzie Clachlan
Music: Nico Muhly, Antony Hegarty
Lighting designer: Jack Knowles
Sound designer: David McSeveney
Illusions: Chris Fisher
Presented by Manchester International Festival and the Royal Exchange Theatre