Royal Exchange, Manchester
Aspects of Caryl Churchill’s 1994 collaborative fantasy remain obscure, but magnetic Peake and a 12-strong ensemble offer an intensely theatrical experience
Plays change with time. When Caryl Churchill’s collaborative fantasy was first seen in 1994, it was regarded as bafflingly obscure. Aspects of it remain difficult but, watching the magnetic Maxine Peake in a magnificent Royal Exchange production for the Manchester international festival, it becomes clear that the play offers, among other things, a vision of climate catastrophe we can all understand.
In some ways, Churchill’s play is like a darker Midsummer Night’s Dream in that it shows a collision between the mortal and immortal worlds. The big difference is that Churchill’s skriker, a shape-shifting ancient fairy, is chillingly visible, unlike Shakespeare’s Puck, to the two teenage girls whom she haunts and pursues: Josie, institutionalised for killing a baby, and Lily, anxiously awaiting the birth of one.
Driven by a mixture of neediness and revenge, the skriker craves to be part of the human cycle yet comes attended by a bevy of Brueghelian underground spirits and seems bent on mortifying her human contacts. What are we to make of all this?
Some, on a first viewing, saw the play as a study in postnatal psychosis, with the skriker embodying the two girls’ darkest fears. At other times the play seems like an experiment with language in which the skriker adopts a densely pun-filled style (“champagne the pain is a sham pain the pain is a sham”) that brings to mind Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.
But what hits one between the eyeballs now is Churchill’s concern with ecological disaster. This is made manifest in a deeply moving speech in which the skriker lists today’s prevailing meteorological extremes and talks of mankind’s historic reliance on the seasons: the assumption that “spring will return even if it’s without me, nobody loves me but at least it’s a sunny day”.
As in her later play, Far Away (2000), Churchill posits a world in which all these certainties are gone and the delicate balance of nature is destroyed. For all its passion, the play is as much poem as polemic and it gets a richly inclusive, cross-disciplinary production from Sarah Frankcom.
Lizzie Clachan has turned the Royal Exchange stage into a distressed echo-chamber filled with bare wooden tables, while Imogen Knight’s imaginative choreography uses the attendant spirits as a phantom presence echoing human longings. And the music by Nico Muhly and Antony Hegarty has a similar unearthly quality, not least in a quasi-religious chorale to accompany a Thyestean banquet.
But it is Peake who holds the evening together and who seems capable of embracing within herself male and female, tough and tender, vengeful and vulnerable. With much the same shorn blonde hair she sported for Hamlet and a sharp-edged voice that lends clarity to Churchill’s packed language, she makes you believe you are watching a character who has stepped out of myth rather than daily reality.
She is vividly supported by Laura Elsworthy as Josie, Juma Sharkah as Lily and by a 12-strong ensemble who thread their way through the action like sinuous ghosts. It seems exactly the kind of neglected work a festival should be reviving and, even if I’d be hard-pressed to put a definitive meaning on it, it offers an intensely theatrical experience.
At Royal Exchange, Manchester, until 1 August. Box office: 0844 871 7654.
The Skriker is ancient, earth-old, pre-history, a thing of myth. It can take any form, any face. It is not human but it likes to walk among them, it feels longing, it wants love.
Caryl Churchill’s play, written in 1994, is being revived in a major co-production between the Royal Exchange and the Manchester International Festival. During the 2013 MIF, Sarah Frankcom and Maxine Peake presented a recital of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy in a candlelit chapel, a performance of glorious force framed by flames.
They’ve since worked together on Hamlet and now Frankcom is directing Peake as Churchill’s shape-shifting fairy, a needy creature, seductive, a granter of wishes and a caster of spells. It rises to the surface to find love, to take what it wants, infecting the lives of two women: Laura Elsworthy’s Josie, who has lost a child, and Juma Sharkah’s Lily, who is carrying one.
Peake cuts an androgynous, old-young figure, hair shaved at the sides, her posture slightly hunched, at once a child and an old woman, occasional flashing with malevolence, glinting with want. Language spills out of the Skriker like a river, a word-purge, playful and punning, skittering and alliterative.
As central as language is to the piece, it is also an intensely visual production, an ambitious collaborative exercise. The lunar module that is the Royal Exchange’s auditorium has been completely remade and the seating on the stage level replaced by a series of tables around which the audience sits. Lizzie Clachan has turned the space into something midway between Alien 3’s prison planet and the sewers below the Paris Opera House from The Phantom of the Opera. It’s a decaying space, populated by twitching folkloric figures, choreographed by Imogen Knight; there is always movement somewhere in the room.
Just when the piece is threatening to become wearying, Frankcom plays her ace, dragging us down into the Skriker’s realm, this other, underworld. Those sitting at the tables on stage are moved to the sides of the room as a choir floods into the space. The music, composed by Nico Muhly and Antony of Antony and The Johnsons, is suitably strange and haunting, and there is much glitter and cavorting, as the tables are laid for a banquet over which Peake – now looking like a goth Elizabeth I – presides. It’s a dazzling sequence, made all the more golden by Jack Knowles’ lighting, richly theatrical and transporting.
Elsworthy and Sharkah both give grounded performances which contrast nicely with Peake’s more impish, slippery delivery. The complex tangle of affection and pity, nurture and need, which develops between the three is intriguing and well-handled, and these ‘real world’ scenes provide a necessary counterbalance to the linguistic pyrotechnics. Frankcom and Peake also bring out the play’s sense of warning: the Skriker’s vision of a barren damaged future, of the collapse to come.
A big, bold, ambitious, visually and linguistically rich staging of Caryl Churchill’s play
Maxine Peake takes on the lead role as a shapeshifting fairy at the Royal Exchange Theatre as part of MIF15
Plunged into darkness before fizzing electrics half-light a decrepit asylum inside a cloaked Royal Exchange Theatre, The Skriker is a mesmerising descent into troubled minds and other worlds. But the haunting and intense beauty of this new production at the Manchester International Festival is that its nightmarish journey leads you ultimately to question your own reality.
Maxine Peake is the eponymous Skriker of the piece, an ancient and vengeful fairy who is able to shapeshift at will.
Fresh from her award-winning Hamlet at the Exchange, Peake is once again in imperious form veering between menacing demon, desperate Mother Nature and a pleading child begging to be loved.
It is she that introduces the play inside the “asylum” of the theatre floor, where a handful of bolder audience members get to live out the action alongside the “lunatics” who take over the stalls with twisted, jolting bodies and macabre disfigurements.
She spews out an extraordinary soliloquy before we are introduced to the two teenage mothers, Josie (Laura Elworthy) and Lily (Juma Sharkah) that the Skriker is seemingly hellbent on seducing for some evil other-worldy aim. The play was penned by Caryl Churchill 20 years ago as a morality tale about mankind’s destruction of the environment, but here the themes of femininity and womanhood in the 21st century are the ones that resonate as much as society’s consumerism.
The twisted relationship between the three women is at times terrifying – and is at its most intense when Josie descends into an underworld banquet with the Skriker transformed into a fairy queen, Peake overseeing her debauched band of zombie fiends like a cross between Vivienne Westwood and the Virgin Queen. A clamouring chorus brings the scene to a crescendo, part of an impressive score composed by Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) for this production.
Director Sarah Frankcom draws out a staggering picture of doom, building the nightmarish atmosphere to its shattering conclusion. Her ensemble cast are committed to the intense physical realisation of their roles – even down to the last twitching hand of the incessant dancer when all else is still.
It’s at times baffling and shocking, but is never less than enthralling – and leaving the theatre with as many questions as answers is exactly what The Skriker is all about.
1. The Skriker, Manchester International Festival, various dates and locations.
Venture into Manchester this weekend to catch Maxine Peake in her latest role as a menacing shape-shifting fairy in a play which blends an ancient fairy story with a portrait of broken England. For tickets, visit mif.co.uk/artist/maxine-peake.
MAXINE Peake is well known for taking on unconventional roles that see her transformed into a completely different person the second she takes to the stage.
The Westhoughton actress has also overhauled her appearance on many occasions, such as cropping her hair short for her role in Hamlet – and her latest offering as a fierce shape-shifting fairy The Skriker is no different.
The 40-year-old looks menacing and almost unrecognisable as the character she is portraying at this year’s Manchester International Festival in Caryl Churchill’s 1994 play of an extraordinary creature which pursues and entraps two sisters in a fractured world.
But her character’s appearance does not deter the former Westhoughton High School pupil who cannot wait to start.
Maxine said: “I’m really excited to be making work again for the festival and have the opportunity to build on the impact of the last piece we made — The Masque of Anarchy.
“The Skriker is a very physical production. There is a lot of movement and the audience will be right in the action, so that will be quite exciting for both them and me.”
Maxine was a member of the Royal Exchange Youth Group and has previously appeared there in the critically acclaimed Hamlet, Miss Julie, The Children’s Hour and Rutherford and Son.
The Skriker sees her again pair up with Sarah Frankcom, artistic director at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, following The Masque of Anarchy two years ago.
Maxine said: “I think The Skriker will be different to what is normally on at the Exchange Theatre, and I am delighted to be working with Sarah again.”
The duo were lauded for their depiction of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s outraged poetic response to the Peterloo Massacre, and again for Hamlet, which saw Maxine’s performance as the troubled Danish Prince receive critical acclaim during its sold out seven-week run at the theatre last autumn.
Sarah added: “I’m hugely excited to be collaborating with the Manchester International Festival again, and this time to be staging it at the Royal Exchange.
“When The Skriker was first produced more than 20 years ago, its stark warning about our collective responsibility for the world in which we live and the destruction we do seemed prophetic. Today, it feels an absolute and undeniable reality.”
The Skriker, which starts today, runs until August 1. For tickets, phone the box office on 0844 871 7654 or visit mif.co.uk/event/the-skriker.
There’s a new play from Mark Ravenhill in London, Maxine Peake stars in Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker in Manchester, and the experiences of returning veterans are explored in both Bristol and Cardiff
Maxine Peake plays a shapeshifting faerie from the underworld in The Skriker Photograph: Jonty Wilde
Maxine Peake plays The Skriker in a new version of Caryl Churchill’s play, directed by Sarah Frankcom at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, with music by Nico Muhly and Antony. The Theatre Royal Bath’s summer season begins with Michael Pennington and Anita Dobson starring in Lindsay Posner’s revival of She Stoops to Conquer. The Greater Manchester Fringe also kicks off today and features a wide range of theatre and performance. The programme is well worth a browse. At Bristol Old Vic, Owen Sheers’ epic poem Pink Mist takes to the stage in an intimate performance exploring the lives of three young Bristol men returning from Afghanistan. Down the road at the Tobacco Factory, New International Encounter are going Around the World in 80 Days. In Cardiff, the Hijinx Unity festival has a really terrific line-up, with five days of performances showcasing some of the best inclusive and disability arts from around the world. In London, the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is celebrated in a large-scale outdoor show at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich as part of Greenwich and Docklands international festival.
The second part of the classic poems program is online and available to listen to here now. Enjoy!
Maxine Peake and Julian Rhind-Tutt read a selection of classic poems, including ‘Jabberwocky’ and ‘The Jumblies’.
Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie broadcast live from the Manchester International Festival, which this year features new commissions from Damon Albarn, Bjork and Jamie XX!
With special guests to be announced.
Visit the program page for more info. If you can’t make it, the broadcast will be available online afterwards.
Mark your calendars, Hamlet film will premiere on Sky Arts on 29 June!
Critically acclaimed on stage, celebrated in cinemas – the on screen success of Maxine Peake as Hamlet continues!
Screenings of the film version of the Royal Exchange Theatre’s sell-out production of HAMLET, with BAFTA-nominated actress Maxine Peake in the title role and directed by the Exchange’s Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom, have been watched by 34,831 people in 310 cinemas across the UK. Which came on the back of Maxine enthralling audiences during its sold out 7 week run last autumn. HAMLET was the Royal Exchange’s fastest selling show in a decade, with over 35,000 people seeing the production.
This unique production can now also be seen on Sky Arts on Monday 29 June at 8pm. Following this the film will be released on DVD in September this year, and can be pre-bought on Amazon here.
Sarah Frankcom commented: ‘Right from the beginning of this production, it felt like a thrilling opportunity to explore, excavate and interrogate something with Maxine Peake, the most fearless and most courageous actor that I’ve ever worked with.’
In the spring of 2015 the film version equally thrilled cinema goers with many venues adding additional screenings due to demand and popularity. In May it received a market screening at Cannes and was one of 50 British films selected to be shown as a part of the prestigious London Screenings which take place in June. The development of the film enabled as many people as possible to see this acclaimed production.
The Royal Exchange’s Executive Director Fiona Gasper commented;
‘It’s our desire to make the work we do here as accessible as we can, creating a film version of this sold-out production meant that as many people as possible could share in and celebrate the work created at the Exchange and in Manchester. It has proved to be incredibly popular and we’re thrilled that it is now being broadcast by Sky Arts creating another opportunity to be part of this compelling production.’
HAMLET is brought to the screen by the Award-Winning film director Margaret Williams, whose work includes WRITTEN ON SKIN (Royal Opera House/BBC). It is produced by Anne Beresford of MJW PRODUCTIONS LTD and Debbie Gray of Genesius Pictures. This is the team behind the much-praised film version of Britten’s opera PETER GRIMES ON ALDEBURGH BEACH.
Margaret said, ‘Being able to shoot creatively with eight cameras ‘in the round’ enabled us to capture the spirit of the play and create a visceral and cinematic experience’
The film version of HAMLET is supported by the Royal Exchange Theatre, Genesius Pictures, Quidem and the British Council. The Royal Exchange Theatre gratefully acknowledges the generosity of the following in the making of the film: Oglesby Charitable Trust, Old Trafford Consulting Limited, Martyn & Valerie Torevell and all those who supported the theatre’s recent Catalyst project, including public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.
MAXINE PEAKE is currently an Associate Artist at the Royal Exchange Theatre. Her role draws on her considerable talents as one of the nation’s best-loved actors and also as a writer. Over the next year it will include opportunities for her to get involved in the theatre’s pioneering work with community groups and young people – and work with young actors from across the city.
Check out this lovely photo taken by Laura Marie Linck for her ‘Behind the Scene’ Exhibition that’ll open tomorrow:
Photocalls & Portraits > 2015 > Behind the Scene Exhibition