Sarah Frankcom and Maxine Peake’s interpretation of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker retains its environmental relevance, but can it inspire audiences into political action?
Caryl Churchill’s postmodern play The Skriker is just about to begin its final week of a sold-out run at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre and its environmentalist message is as worryingly relevant today as when it premièred at the National Theatre twenty-one years ago. This has been a summer of headlines about record-breaking temperatures; according to scientists the Earth as a whole has experienced its hottest June and the hottest first half of the year since records began. The current climate crisis is entwined with a lengthy history of industrialisation, reckless ecological practices, and the environmental movement has been blighted by financial crisis, austerity, and a political and corporate denial of this global catastrophe. Global warming and climate change are unavoidable issues that permeate news media and increasingly fictional media.
Bringing Science to the Stage
The revival of Caryl Churchill’s apocalyptic 1994 play The Skriker is being led by director Sarah Frankcom and actor Maxine Peake, who plays the shape-shifting titular character. The play anthropomorphises a damaged natural world in the form of an ancient folklore faerie – the Skriker – who reels off playful and often perturbing word association monologues reminiscent of the Northern political punk poetry of John Cooper Clark. It is a theatrical experience, an artwork, and a protest piece that is intended as a provocation rather than linear narrative work. Through movement, music, and a dense dialogue the play connects environmental and mental health issues, and compares a fractured world with individual and societal instability.
Earlier this year I auditioned to be a part of a community choir for The Skriker; an amazing opportunity to be involved in with a professional play at a prestigious Northern arts festival, and, I’ll be honest, the chance to be in close proximity to Maxine Peake who I have adored since she played Twinkle in dinnerladies. I planned to spend my summer as a science communication scholar by day researching the intersection of science and entertainment media
, and transforming into a singing underworld spirit by night. But in our first rehearsal director Sarah Frankcom explained that she and collaborator Maxine Peake would be reading the play as an environmentalist call to action, and responding to conversations in the media concerning capitalism and its impact on the natural world. The Skriker would be at the intersection: bringing science issues to the stage.
The coal-fired Navajo Generating Station, in Arizona. Photograph: Alamy
As Peake explains:
with our world in constant environmental crisis and our survival options becoming increasingly narrow, Caryl’s play to me seems like the Earth’s last cry for help. It’s a fairytale turned nightmare, a warning and a premonition to our future survival on a planet that we have mercilessly exploited and abused.
The director, Sarah Frankcom adds that ‘one of the major drivers for looking at [The Skriker] again is the world it is set in, being a bit of a premonition about a world in environmental crisis, is the world we live in now.’
In preparation for the play the creative team and ensemble cast read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate
; the tension between wealth, health, and nature that underpins the book also clearly influenced this adaptation. Klein’s book was used as what Peake refers to as ‘a bible piece’ that influenced the play’s creative development but also its reception, with a excerpt appearing in the production’s programme alongside bio-art stills taken from the The Skriker trailer produced by Alice Dunseath. Klein’s climate change argument is historical, and she argues that if it had been addressed in the sixties when scientists first began to urgently raise the issue, or even in the 1980s and 1990s in the era when James E. Hansen gave his seminal Congress testimony on the crisis of global warming and the Kyoto Protocol was introduced, then perhaps climate change and global warming could have responded to without a need for economic revolution. Klein claims
We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets
As a physical embodiment of nature, Peake’s Skriker celebrates the inevitable end of humanity and its seemingly magical and misunderstood science and technologies. Frankcom’s interpretation of The Skriker is staged in a harsh industrial world with hazy city smog far from the ancient natural world recalled by the Skriker, where humans revered rather than poisoned the land. A cold metal and concrete set is utilised as a mental hospital, a housing estate, and a hellish underworld. Audience members sat on the stage level are part of the play forced to engage with this damaged force of nature and her menacing ensemble. The overwhelming banquet scene that takes place in the Skriker’s underworld kingdom revels in a loss of control and bodily pleasures that results in visceral self-destruction: a cannibal feast of human flesh.
This is not a natural faerie woodland fantasy but an apocalyptic reality where nature has become an actively vengeful force, an unseen menace. The play opens with a monologue where the Skriker rallies against the modern world and its destructive tendencies, and as the she cautions in a later scene, nature is fighting back:
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 has been a comfort to people as long as they’ve existed. But it’s not available anymore. Sorry. Nobody loves me and the sun’s going to kill me. Spring will return and nothing will grow. Some people might feel concerned about that. But it makes me feel important. I’m going to be around when the world as we know it ends. I’m going to witness unprecedented catastrophe.
…or should the audience bring the science?
Global catastrophe is a direct consequence of humanity’s disregard for the natural world. The Skriker, like Churchill’s 2002 play A Number that used cloning as a means to engage with the nature/nurture debate, does not directly comment on the science of global warming. Unlike other recently staged and revived science-based plays like Constellations, Copenhagen, and The Effect that are structured around scientific principles and medical dilemmas, The Skriker requires the audience to ‘bring the science’. Kirsten Shepherd-Barr’s book Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to Copenhagen
notes that audience members can fill in the scientific gaps, which allows for a focus on ethical dilemmas and catastrophic consequences. The Skriker integrates key ideas concerning environmentalism and dramatises the implications and issues for an audience who are regularly confronted by scientific stories about global warming in the media.
The Skriker is a form of science education; a starting point for discussions of the nature of global destruction. Audiences emerge from the immersive theatre in the round at the Royal Exchange Theatre more often than not confused by what they’ve seen. I’m in the play and it has taken me three weeks of performances to even begin to appreciate its complexities – we have had countless dressing room discussions to try to get to grips with this multi-themed play and its apparent environmentalist message. Peake explains
that the Skriker wants the women she seduces on stage to ‘help set the world on fire’ and convince them that ‘time is running out’ for this world, but the Skriker also seduces the audience into thinking the same thing, even if they can’t really articulate their thoughts when they emerge back onto the streets of industrial Manchester.
Amy C. Chambers is a science communication studies and visual culture scholar in The Science and Entertainment Laboratory at the University of Manchester.
Royal Exchange, Manchester
Caryl Churchill’s doom-wreaking Skriker, created 20 years ago, proves to be a primary figure of modern theatre
She would not be welcome as a member of the Garrick Club. She has no penis, no establishment position and is not big on banter. Nevertheless, the Skriker is one of the primary figures of modern theatre.
As Caryl Churchill’s shape-shifting, doom-wreaking fairy, Maxine Peake rams home this importance. She slams and slides and swarms. She comes on as a crop-haired, grey-clad prophetess, growling accusations. She reappears, whining, as a shaggy creature tethered to plastic bags. She becomes a sleek woman from a southern state, with shades and a cocktail glass, and a clingy, wheedling girl in an anorak. She is a tattered, winking Gloriana, a sleek, androgynous seducer in a tie, and a winsome elf with a teeny voice and gauzy wings.
Churchill’s play is almost entirely female. The voice of its ancient Cassandra is dominant. Its most sympathetic characters are two young women, strongly rendered by Laura Elsworthy and Juma Sharkah. One has killed her baby; the other is pregnant. The Skriker haunts them, tormenting and enticing. The few males in Sarah Frankcom’s explosive production are part of a disordered landscape in which animation means mutation: one who writhes in ecstatic dance may be partly a horse; another has a giant ear sprouting from the top of his head like a satellite dish.
Yet The Skriker reclaims what have been thought as “women’s issues” for humanity. Motherhood may, after all, also affect men. Churchill uses a female voice to express a skewed world. And what better time to stage this? We are in an era of theatrical dystopias. Of dark fragmentary dramas, which dip in and out of underworlds. A few months ago, Simon Stephens’s Carmen Disruption smouldered at the Almeida. Alistair McDowall’s tale of lost souls, Pomona, will shortly be seen at the National and in Manchester, on whose geography it draws. Zinnie Harris’s How to Hold Your Breath, which also starred Peake, made a claim on the same territory at the Royal Court. The Skriker, first staged in 1994, now looks like the fairy godmother of them all.
It is powerful in picturing disorder. It is bewildering, sometimes maddening in its fecund confusion. It is also extraordinarily prescient. Using fairytale to project hard truths is now common feminist currency; it was rarer 20 years ago. As was certainty about climate catastrophe, an environmental tragedy that here looks like moral rupture, psychic disaster writ large. Weird things are happening with the weather. “It was always possible to think whatever your personal problem, there’s always nature… Nobody loves me but at least it’s a sunny day.” That consolation has now gone.
Everything is disintegrating, including speech. The Skriker’s language freewheels from sense to delirium. It is as if the speaker had a tempest in her mouth that blows the boundaries between one word and another: “Pin prick cockadoodle do you feel it?” It is not an invented language; rather a repunctuation. Her opening speech, delivered in a sustained rush, is almost the length of a short Beckett play and has some of the same force. Peake can’t make its sentences clear, but she makes it evident that, however hermetic her outpouring, it is not all bunkum. It swims in and out of sense: “The baby has no name better nick a name, better Old Nick than no name.” She pulls you into the echoes of nursery rhyme and fairytale. Specially commissioned music by Nico Muhly and Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons), sometimes harsh, sometimes gently marimba, also penetrates these speeches.
Lizzie Clachan, one of the theatre’s boldest design talents, makes a bedlam cabaret out of the Royal Exchange. Audience members sit at rough wooden tables amid the duskily lit action. In a terrific banquet scene, in which huge platters are laden with goodies, one guest delivers a running commentary on what it is to see her own limbs and parts spread out to be devoured. Around the stage, alcoves contain glimpses of ordinary life, diminished to miniature size: rows of sunflowers, bright little houses.
It is extraordinary how rapidly Manchester international festival has established itself. Manchester and Dublin are now the cities for guaranteed festival excitement, not least because the programme is not all one-off fizzing. It looks to the future. The Skriker shows in action one of the most interesting of theatrical partnerships. Frankcom, who runs the Royal Exchange, directed Peake as Hamlet and – incandescently – in her recitation of The Masque of Anarchy. This latest collaboration proves that her theatre will go on provoking.
Actor Maxine Peake plays the lead role in a revival of Caryl Churchill’s play The Skriker, at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until 1 August.
In the play she plays a shape-shifter, a malevolent fairy who morphs into an old woman living on the streets, an American debutante and a child desperately seeking a mother figure.
The play begins with an extraordinary monologue in which The Skriker rails against the modern world in an outpouring of inventive wordplay and puns.
Here Maxine Peake explains how she approached this scene.
Maxine appeared on BBC Newsnight yesterday, you can watch the episode by following this link. Enjoy!
Here’s a quote from Maxine on the show –
Actress Maxine Peake:
This government is taking away people’s opportunities to fulfill their ambitions.
The Guardian has published a great new article about Maxine. I’ve posted it below, it’s a good after work read so you should definitely check it out!
Actor defied early rejections from drama schools to become one of Britain’s most exciting stage names, winning plaudits for her roles as well as her personality
Maxine Peake: ‘I don’t like modern life. I pine for the simplicity of the past.’
It is a mark of the boldness and versatility of Maxine Peake that she is one of the few actors to have played both Ophelia and Hamlet in productions of Shakespeare’s Danish tragedy. And this protean quality is currently on show every night at the Manchester Royal Exchange theatre, where, portraying an ancient shape-shifter in a revival of Caryl Churchill’s play The Skriker, she inhabits a vast range of characters – old, young, male, female, English, American, historical, contemporary, mythical – during two hours of being almost permanently on stage.
British actors who have just done a successful movie – Peake is in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything – and starred in a hit TV series (she played an ambitious barrister in Silk) often move on to Hollywood or Broadway. And, while those options remain open, it seems typical of Peake that she should now appear in a piece of experimental theatre; The Skriker combines music, movement and torrential monologues in an invented language.
Peake was born in Bolton, and The Skriker is the sixth time in 10 years the actor has worked in Manchester with Sarah Frankcom, artistic director of the Royal Exchange, where Peake was a member of the youth theatre as a teenager. Her performance in the title role of Hamlet last year, a show that numerous producers elsewhere would love to have hosted, was for Exchange audiences only and set box office records.
“She chooses to live in the north and often to work there,” says Frankcom. “It’s a very important part of who she is.”
An earlier generation of northern actors – including Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney – were encouraged to southernise their vowels in theatre, and while Britain has become more tolerant of dialect, increasing screen possibilities in the US place a fresh pressure on actors to even out their speech. Frankcom notes that Peake, born in 1974, “has resolutely never lost her Boltonian accent and I think that’s very important for young actors because we can still be funny about regional accents in theatre, partly, I’m afraid, for class reasons. But Max is very proud of where she comes from.”
Anyone drawn to The Skriker by having seen Peake in Silk will be impressed by an acting range that easily encompasses both screen realism and theatrical surrealism. However, Peter Moffat, writer of three TV series in which Peake has starred – Criminal Justice, Silk and The Village – believes there is a unifying factor across her work: risk. Most obviously, she braved tabloid editorialising to play the Moors murderer Myra Hindley in a 2006 TV mini-series but, even in less obviously edgy parts, says Moffat, there is a level of jeopardy.
“I think she likes playing roles that people don’t think she’s going to be able to do. That’s true of Hamlet, clearly. But, when I first saw her at an audition for Criminal Justice, she was this northern young woman who convinced us that she could play a posh London character with an RP accent. In Silk, she wasn’t obvious casting for a QC. I think there can be an edge and danger that comes from the actor worrying if they’re going to be able to pull it off. And that crackle comes through the screen.”
Maxine Peake in The Skriker.
Theatrical anecdote suggests that Peake’s portrayal of the Prince of Denmark resulted from Frankcom asking her which part would most terrify her to play. The director, though, says that isn’t quite right. Generally, their joint projects have been suggested by Frankcom or Alex Poots, artistic director of the Manchester festival, but Hamlet was the exception: “Ever since I’d known her, Max was saying that was what she wanted to do and I’d kept saying it was too early to try something like that, but eventually the time seemed right.”
A key decision for female Hamlets – a tradition that stretches back to the theatrical pioneer Sarah Bernhardt – is how manly to be. Peake, with a short peroxide crop, opted for androgyny and sexual ambiguity, which brought a new perspective to the prince’s struggle to be the man he wants to be. Her Hamlet also transmitted a sense of danger, looking as if he could do some damage in the climactic duel.
Born in Westhoughton, in Bolton, she is the youngest daughter of Brian, a retired lorry driver, and Glynis, a former careworker. Her older sister, Lisa, became a police officer when Peake was a teenager: a profession that challenged the family’s leftwing, union-supporting politics. As part of the recruitment process, a sergeant came to meet the family, finding Maxine, as she told a BBC interviewer, wearing an African awareness pendant, trainers with an anarchy sign drawn on and a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament badge. “What Lisa and her colleagues go through, particularly on Saturday night in Manchester, is appalling. I have huge admiration for her,” she has said.
Maxine’s acting ambitions were thwarted by repeated rejections from drama schools before she earned a scholarship to Rada at the age of 21. Soon after graduation, she had two standout roles on TV: as Twinkle in Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies and Veronica in Paul Abbott’s Shameless.
An unusual aspect of Peake’s pre-acting CV is that she was a talented rugby league player for Wigan Ladies and Moffat believes that this strength and athleticism brings a useful physicality to her work: “The thing about Maxine is that she can credibly run, fight and punch. There’s a scene in The Village where her character is fighting in the mud to get her child back and Maxine got so into it that the crew had to pull her away.”
In the area of mental exercise, the actor’s recent theatre projects include a play about the cycling legend Beryl Burton, which was also broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Along with The Skriker – one of the longest and oddest parts in modern theatre – this move suggests a continuing desire to test herself.
On Manchester projects, Peake now takes the unusual credit “creative associate and lead artist”, although Frankcom describes her as “very much a company member”. During a TV production, Peake noticed that a young actor was not only eating huge amounts at the catering truck every lunchtime but then inviting his girlfriend to the meals as well.
It turned out the man was not being paid due to an accounting error he was too nervous to raise. Peake went to see the producers and got the payroll sorted out. This democratic instinct is also apparent at the end of The Skriker, when, as the audience tries to give Peake a solo ovation for her feat of vocal and physical athleticism, she quickly waves on the other actors to share the applause.
Her role in Silk led her to join a protest against legal aid cuts.
Another of her deeply held values is that, as Frankcom says, “she wants to do plays that mean something politically and socially”. Her level of ideological commitment is such that the role in Silk provoked Peake to march with lawyers campaigning against restrictions on legal aid. When an actor asked her recently what she thought of Game of Thrones, she answered that she “hadn’t seen it, obviously”, the final word referring to her refusal to subscribe to a network owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Sometimes, though, a political subtext may lead her to choose the wrong text. How To Hold Your Breath, a new play by Zinnie Harris at the Royal Court in London, had big things to say about the future of Europe, but the script was underwritten and obscurely staged.
A moment during that run, though, showed Peake’s depths of concentration and professionalism. One night, as Peake delivered the climactic monologue, a member of the audience became seriously unwell, resulting in a shout for a medical professional and noisy clambering over seats to reach the stricken theatregoer. A momentary flicker in Peake’s eyes revealed that she had noticed something was going on, but she remained word-perfect through a complex speech.
This ability to maintain focus has also been noted by Moffat during TV shoots. “Filming can be tedious and repetitive. But even by the seventh take of a scene, she’s still listening to what the other actor says and responding to it, giving you something fresh.”
Although she will continue to be offered major TV roles, her recent work suggests a move away from peak-time Peake towards something more like the career of Tilda Swinton, who has won an Oscar but is just as likely to turn up as a living artwork at the Serpentine Gallery or perform a Samuel Beckett monologue in a converted phone booth in the Scottish Highlands.
“I think it’s partly because there aren’t obvious career routes for actresses when they get to 40,” says Frankcom, “and so you have to work out what it is you want to do. I think Max has learned the cost of doing things she doesn’t believe in and so now she has to be really committed to something.”
Peake has attributed her artistic freedom partly to having a smaller mortgage than her London-based contemporaries – due to living in Salford with her partner, artist Pawlo Wintoniuk. She is writing a play and, with Frankcom, planning a seventh Manchester collaboration, which remains under wraps. A new play or a classic? “Ah. A bit of both, really,” says the director, tantalisingly. Moffat, meanwhile, plans more scripts for The Village and is also working on a stage monologue for Peake about a standup comedian.
“I’ve done 30 hours of television with her now,” says Moffat, “and she has never spoken a line of mine wrongly. There has never been an interpretation that jarred, which is very rare. She has this native actor’s intelligence for what you intended or even sometimes to go beyond that and show you something you didn’t know was there.”
“I simply wouldn’t be able to predict what sort of work she’d be doing in five years,” says Frankcom. “And that tells you a lot about her.”
Born: 14 July, 1974, Bolton
Career: Initially rejected by every drama school in the north-west, accepted at Rada at 21. Her breakthrough roles were in TV comedies by northern writers: Paul Abbott’s Shameless and Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies. Although Peake’s career has subsequently gone into very different areas, Wood was a crucial early mentor.
High point: A feat of learning and performance, requiring extraordinary levels of vocal and physical power, The Skriker (at the Manchester Royal Exchange until 18 July) is the perfect showcase for her talents.
Low point: Her early rejection raises worrying questions about possible class and social prejudice in drama recruitment.
She says: “I’m old-fashioned. I don’t like modern life. I pine for the simplicity of the past and the connections people had.”
They say: “In her Chairman Mao suit and David Bowie hair, Peake uses every part of the stage, every prop, every poise of the body to deliver a 400-year-old script as if the words have just come to her.” – Manchester Evening News on her Hamlet
Those wanting to see The Skriker starring Maxine Peake at The Royal Exchange Theatre: There are still tickets available at the MIF Festival Square Box Office which you can purchase on the day of the performance.
There are also a limited number of tickets on Stage Level and Second Gallery available which you can ask The Royal Exchange Box Office for also.
SO GET BOOKING WHILE YOU STILL CAN!!
Big thanks to Maxine Peake who took time out her busy schedule to answer questions on FB! She is truly appreciative of all your support 🙂
You can read Maxine Peake’s answers from today’s Q&A here. Happy reading and thanks for participating!
Please make sure that your questions are only related to Maxine’s work and please remember that Maxine has a very busy schedule and limited amount of time to reply so please don’t be too disheartened if she can’t answer every single question.
She is greatly appreciative of all your support of her work, as are we.
Please comment with your question HERE!
The Skriker is commissioned and produced by Manchester International Festival and the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Maxine Peake will play the eponymous role and Juma Sharkah and Laura Elsworthy will play Lily and Josie respectively in The Skriker at Manchester International Festival. The production began performances 4 July at Royal Exchange Theatre. BroadwayWorld has a first look at the cast in action below!
The ensemble cast will include Sarah Amankwah, Harry Attwell, Alex Austin, Hannah Hutch, Martins Imhangbe, Kate Jackson, Stuart Overington, Beatrice Scirocchi, Andrew Sheridan, Jessica Walker, Leah Walker andOwen Whitelaw.
…long before that, long before England was an idea, a country of snow and wolves where trees sang and birds talked and people knew we mattered…
In a broken world, two sisters meet an extraordinary creature. The Skriker is a shapeshifter; an old woman, a child, a death portent. She is a faerie come from the Underworld to pursue and entrap them, through time and space, through this world and her own.
Directed by Sarah Frankcom, the creative team also includes designer Lizzie Clachan, lighting by Jack Knowles, sound by David McSeveney, choreographer Imogen Knight, composers Nico Muhly & Antony Hegarty, casting director Jerry Knight-Smith CDG, and associate director Bryony Shanahan.
THE SKRIKER runs at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, St Ann’s Square, Manchester M2 7DH on 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17 JULY 7.30PM, 11, 18 JULY 8PM and 12, 18 JULY 2.30PM, then continues at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 20 JULY – 1 AUG. Box Office: mif.co.uk | 0844 871 7654 OR royalexchange.co.uk | 0161 833 9833. Tickets £15 – £45 (no per ticket booking fee; transaction fee applies).
You can view the photos here.
The Skriker, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
It is Maxine Peake as you have never seen her before.
Deranged, gaunt, and manic in her title role as The Skriker, the character is a world away from any of her previous roles.
A new adaptation of Caryl Churchill’s 1994 play commissioned for this year’s Manchester International Festival, The Skriker is a stunning visual experience which will last long in the memory.
The Royal Exchange is transformed into The Skriker’s otherworldly lair, a dimly lit, dark and disturbing nightmareish world full of similarly strange creatures.
The play tells the story of The Skriker, an ancient fairy and shape-shifter who is hundreds of years old and can transform into a variety of people and objects, speaking a strange language of broken and fragmented English.
Along the way two friends and young mothers, Josie (Laura Elsworthy) and Lily (Juma Sharkah), are lured into The Skriker’s world.
The Skriker, an almost demonic yet at the same time isolated character, moves from appearing as a homeless person, a child to an old woman, all in bid to torment and taunt the two emotionally damaged women.
We are Introduced into The Skriker’s sinister world with an unsettling, disorientating 20 minute opening monologue, which sets the tone for the play.
At times it is difficult to follow what is happening, but this adaptation is more of an immersive and hypnotic experience than most plays.
For example, theatre-goers sat at stage level may get more than they bargain for — as the usual tiered seating has been removed and punters are part of the play itself.
They are directed to sets of chairs and tables on the stage floor which are used as the stage, with actors performing just inches away.
This experience is completed by the entrancing music provided by Nico Muhly and Antony, lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, in addition to the mesmerising stage design.
The play thrives on visual spectacle, and never more so is this the case than during the entrancing feast scene, when The Skriker and its other underworld creatures feast on flesh, and when Maxine Peake’s latest incarnation as an Elizabeth I type character appears to oversee proceedings.
The play, originally devised by Churchill during the tumultuous years of the 1980s, explores themes of possession, insanity and broken society, underneath its spectacular multi-sensory experience.
It is an ambitious and challenging piece of work, led by director Sarah Frankcom and Bolton born Maxine, who is also a creative associate at the theatre, which is not an easy watch but explores the limits of artistry in the theatre setting.
Maxine’s portrayal of The Skriker as a terrifying and haunting presence, yet strangely human and alluring to the audience showcases the power of her theatrical abilities.
The Skriker runs until August 1.
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.
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.
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