Caryl Churchill’s doom-wreaking Skriker, created 20 years ago, proves to be a primary figure of modern theatre. That fairy tales really do come true in the land of “The Skriker,” Caryl Churchill’s astonishing new play at the Joseph Papp Public Theater. In Caryl Churchill’s play, the world is still populated by fairies, shape-shifting malevolent forces who replace human babies with changelings, and seduce us into.
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One of the vexing and beautiful things about writing about theatre — one of the primary reasons I keep doing it, I guess — is that the more profound the experience is, the more difficult it is to express in words. What is that quality which transforms what might otherwise be mere foolish pretence into an act that plucks at the roots of the psyche, waking out of the darkness ksriker monsters that walk in all of us?
You can be sure, there is nothing benign or twee about it: Brian Lipson and his churchikl of actors take Churchill’s bleak, disturbing play and realise an entire theatrical world that is like being in an enchanting and sinister dream, a damaged world of transformation and dis-ease. This is, churhcill every sense, demanding work: Oneiric, haunting and toxic, it’s one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I have seen this year.
She creates a world of hallucinatory mirrors: It’s perhaps a particularly English tradition of Gothic: Josie Susan Miller is the bad sister: The good sister is her friend Lily Julie Weewho is pregnant. Both of them are haunted by the Skriker, a shape-shifting fairy who envies and desires their fertility – babies have high value in the sterile world of Faerie – and seduces them by granting their wishes. She turns up in various guises – as an American woman in a bar, a nasty little girl eaten up with sibling rivalry, a lover who behaves like an obsessed stalker – and tempts both of them down into the carnivalesque Underworld.
Around the three major figures erupts a world infected with malign enchantments, a population of lost and dead children, lunatics, hags, kelpies, bogles and monsters. As the Skriker says: Spring will return even if it’s without me. Nobody loves me but at least it’s a sunny day.
This has been a comfort to people as long as they’ve existed. But it’s not available any more. Nobody loves me and the sun’s going to kill me. Spring will return and nothing will grow. In its original sense, glamourie was the word given to the ability of fairies – the Irish Sidhe, the Norse Alfar or the English Faerie – to transform and fool human senses. The production begins with this kind of transformation: Inside the theatre, we hear the sounds of animal howls and shrieks, and the beasts begin to hammer on the door…and thus we are led inside, into cary claustrophobic tunnel like a cattle race, dimly and obscurely lit by a single reddish-yellow lightbulb.
It is like the inside of a womb, or a limbo of the half-formed, where the audience members mill around with cast members that we can barely discern, surrounded by a cacophony of bestial noises.
We emerge into a corral, surrounded by higher platforms on all sides; the lights widen, and human speech begins to emerge from the squeals and growls. This introduces the first movement, as it were, of this production, which divides roughly into three main parts. Much of the text — the words of the Skriker, the damaged fairy — is a collage of word association, in which meaning is on the verge of slipping into nonsense. That bitch a botch an itch in my sjriker blood.
Slat itch slit botch. Itch slut bitch slit…. Here Churchill is pushing theatre hard up against skrkker poem, sense against nonsense, and one can only admire the force of the centrifugal will that keeps the text this side of comprehensible.
Lipson divides the Skriker’s speech between the actors of the company, who vocalise it as a sound poem or a spoken oratorio around the audience.
The Skriker ~ theatre notes
Focus is constantly shifting: It is a wholly immersive experience, at once shockingly intimate and alienating. The first clear piece of narrative is a scene in a lunatic asylum, where Lily is visiting Josie. This is performed on four sides, the audience still standing in the centre, by four sets of actors; again the words are carefully orchestrated, so each scene is at once clear and splintered.
No scene is identical, either: The effect is arrestingly disturbing, the beginning of a sense of a world without mooring or base reality from which reference can be made, and the realism of the performances — which touch precise emotional authenticities — is an edge against which the carnivalesque world of Faerie is whetted.
Behind this show is an attuned attention to the emotional and psychic disturbance that occasions it, and it’s reflected in the emotional fearlessness and clarity of the performances that Lipson has elicited from each member of his young ensemble.
The design is a mixture of contemporary street aesthetic and the grotesque, with liberal use of mask and costume. One wall of the theatre is piled to the roof with cardboard boxes, and the stage space is shaped by trolleys, which are used in all sorts of ways: After the animal intensities of the opening sequences, the production segues to a series of scenes which play on mirroring: After the interval, when Lily’s baby is born and Josie escapes the Underworld, the scenes are more singular, and the sense of a borderless, anarchic world narrows down to domestic gothic although this is simpliflying considerably.
Among many other elements – this is a show headily rich on texture – there is witty use of Qioa Li’s audio-visual material, from four television screens suspended from the ceiling: The sense of multiple space invoked in the theatre is reinforced also by James Shuter’s ingenious lighting design.
Primarily, something which really only became clear at the finish, I was struck by this production’s elegant and powerful coherence. Reflecting Churchill’s language, Lipson places the theatre under such imagistic and emotional pressures that the experience constantly threatens to fly apart into its disparate elements.
He keeps it together by dint of acute directorial exactingness: There were only a few moments where I felt the intensity and energies began to slacken, and even then, on reflection, I am not sure. What I am sure of is that watching this play was totally compelling, and I will be chewing over it for days hence.
It’s rare to see work in which linguistic, emotional and visual complexities of this order are realised with such thought and art. Some pieces of theatre stick with you, altering the colour of your mind; and for me, this was one of them.
The Skriker review – extraordinarily prescient
Posted by Alison Croggon at 1: I am so sorry to have missed it I suppose the only way to see theatre is to just go as soon as you hear about something and not wait to try and persuade your friends! Your review sent me over to the library to read this play; I’m not sure I understood it, but it scared the living shit out of me and made me want to stage it though I think I’ll have to buy it in a Methuen collection–the cover, which is the one shown here, is so creepy that once I’d read the play I had to return it to the library the next day rather than look at that face–or have it looking at me–when I walked into my house.
I thank you again for widening my horizons from across the Pacific Ocean. Hi Sylvia Your note made my day! Yes, what a wonderful and horrible play it is; it certainly pulls on deep fears and desires.
I hope you do get to stage it, though I imagine it would be incredibly challenging. This is such a good description. I was rhe to explain this to someone. I did this for my GCSE drama piece, it was difficult to do but alot of fun!
Afterwards everyone was telling us what they thought about the story, I didn’t even know what to make of it! They even ask a short history of when it was first performed and people’s reaction to it. Thank you Alison – have just read the play out walking my dogs on moors of North Yorkshire.
Due to the remoteness of where I was walking I read some of the Skriker speeches out loud – fabulous, fabulous use of language. I’d urge anyone reading it to do the same – a bit like Shakespeare it takes on a new dimension when spoken. I wish I had seen this production but your excellent review and insights has caryyl greatly with my understanding of this challenging piece.
It’s certainly language to read out loud, and the Yorkshire moors sound a very appropriate place! Just so everyone knows Titania doesn’t turn Bottom into an ass – Puck does. Thanks for the nice review!
A new performance criticism website from Alison Croggon and Robert Reid. Contact ajcroggon at gmail dot com. I know it’s been quiet on the blog the past couple of days. However, it has not been quiet at home: I’ve been putting together an Op For the first thirty churchipl I thought we were in for something special in Queen Lear.
Robyn Nevin in the titular role, regally costumed in Baal, cargl Lord of Heaven, god of rain and fertility. Baal, the first king of the Christian Hell, best known to us as Beelzebub. And see Andrew Haydon in the G Because Richard Bean’s play The Heretic is about climate change, it attracted the notice of hardline climate change denier Andrew Bolt Skfiker Birthday Party revisited.
Saturday, September 09, The Skriker. Newer Post Older Post Home.