The air is full of dust and the heat is oppressive. A few feet away a pair of skin-headed brothers are planning a party while discussing the relative merits of hallucinogenic butterflies that make you feel like Jackie Kennedy in orgasm. The room is full of rubble and broken book shelves, but they soon make it look presentable. They’ve done this before, they know the drill; they even have nibbles. A small Asian boy is brought out in an oversized gold lamé suit that drowns his fragile form. Something electric crackles in the room; it leaps from the actors into the front row and pulses through the audience. I’ve never been this close to an explosion before.
Ned Bennett’s production of Philip Ridley’s 2005 play, Mercury Fur, is a genuinely physical experience for both its audience and its performers. People emerge from the theatre blinking and shaken, their breath quickened. The compact Old Red Lion theatre is both hotbox and incubator. Seeds are sown. Ridley’s disturbing play is stuffed full of ideas, about selflessness and selfishness, love and desperation. The play’s imagery is potent, unsettling, searing. This is theatre that leaves a mark.
When Mercury Fur was first performed many critics responded with condescending revulsion at its imagining of a rich man who tortures and kills a young boy for sexual pleasure. Written down like that it seems gratuitous, revolting even. But Ridley’s poetic play is in many ways an uplifting experience. It paints a vivid picture of a violent, future dystopia where so much has been lost and eroded, but his story of exploitation and the lengths people will go to in order to survive is threaded with love. He does not use shock simply for the sake of it; Mercury Fur skins its audience and leaves them raw, exposed, but its message is one of salvation.
Bennett’s superb production teases out the play’s beauty and tenderness. In this he is aided by a superb cast; their every decision and action appears fresh. The performers trust each other implicitly, energy ricocheting around the room. Only at one point do the pacing and rhythms of the production feel forced; when James Fynan enters as Lola, his slightly fractured and nervy energy is momentarily jarring, it takes a while for him to sync and settle into the world of the play.
Ciaran Owens and Frank C. Keogh make startlingly believable brothers. As Elliot, the more collected of the pair, Owens subtly underscores each moment of exasperation with his younger, damaged brother Darren. There’s a sense of unbreakable affection and connection between the two. Keogh allows the often uncomprehending Darren a number of moments of heart-breaking clarity. Olly Alexander’s performance as Naz, the scrawny, puppy-like boy who forms an attachment to Darren, is fearless and gently tactile. The audience can’t help but feel for him, this endearing Puck-like figure, mischievous and achingly vulnerable. And we have to love Naz for Ridley’s message of hope to prevail in the midst of all the darkness. We have to believe that if he can be saved, so can we all. This production both understands and achieves that.
Read Exeunt’s interview with Philip Ridley.