I find it hard to think of anyone playing the role of Caryl Churchill’s Skriker other than Kathryn Hunter who made the part her own in the original production at the National Theatre in 1994. The play, a dystopian themed, dark-tale for contemporary times, baffled the critics with its collision of an ailing spirit world and a human race ‘hurtling hurting’ towards apocalyptic disaster. On the other hand, few could find fault with Hunter’s performance – a tour de force as she shapeshifted between the skriker’s own damaged form and the guises she adopts in her encounters between two teenage girls, Josie and Lilly. And my own responses to the play, past and present, have always been haunted by Hunter’s rendition of the part.
But then, if ever there were another actress for this role it would have to be Maxine Peake, a performer with terrific, mesmerising presence and the vocal/physical range to render the skriker’s shapeshifting and the bellowing of rage against a destructive human race. She did not disappoint. If her delivery of the opening, scene-length monologue couched in the fairy logic of associative recall (recognisable fragments from folk tales emerge and break off as the skriker follows another train of thought) didn’t quite hit the mark, this was more to do with the challenging acoustics and sight-lines of the Exchange’s in-the-round space. This and the propensity for the silent creatures from her underworld who populated the stage to be a visual distraction rather than amplification of her rage against the ‘blood poisoning’ humans to whom she is nonetheless hopelessly attracted. Thereafter, however, Peake captivated and enthralled as she adopted one disguise after another, from a homeless bag lady to a suited businessman, ailing and coughing since there aren’t enough disasters in the world to keep him/skriker ‘sated seated besotted’ – a moment that made this twenty-year-old play feel as though it was written for/in the here and now.
Sarah Frankcom’s excellent direction admirably served the structural architecture of Churchill’s text; the banquet scene (mid-way through the play) was both a highpoint in production terms and turning point in underscoring the idea of a planet relentlessly set on a course of global destruction. This is the scene in which the skriker succeeds in luring Josie to her underworld; it was devastatingly, brutally exquisite in its rendition of the spirits feasting on one their own (tables were set with platters of seemingly lavish food in which it was possible to pick out a leg or a head of one of the spirit guests). It was also a scene in which designer Lizzie Clachan’s asylum-styled setting came forcefully into its own: a heightened sense of the insanity of self-serving greed.
From the heights of the balcony and looking down on this pit of monstrous, gluttonous consumption presided over by a regal-looking yet tattered skriker, I felt utterly engulfed by the symphony of the spirits ‘drink drank drunk’. The human world as we know it is increasingly relegated to the outer rim of the walled-in- space: small proscenium-styled insets feature miniature houses and sunflowers, in view yet receding out of view.
Overall, I wasn’t convinced by the decision to have some of the audience seated within the round at the tables that served as miniature stages for the actors. If in one way the intention was to suggest complicity in a world of our own destructive making, in another it often proved a distraction (spectators covering their ears in the raucous banquet scene is not helpful to the desired effect). And the playing in the round meant, as I realised in the curtain call and saw the sheer numbers in the cast, that not all the performers were visible (unless you happened to be a spectator down in the pit).
But I left the theatre with a renewed sense of Churchill’s powerful text; the political urgency with which she writes about a planet conditioned by greed and set on a course of utter annihilation, where no one is ‘safe as dollhouses’ and soon, all too soon, the world will be ‘dustbin’.