The first full-length work by Mancunian playwright Rory Mullarkey – written while he was Pearson Playwright in Residence at the Royal Exchange in 2011 – Cannibals is set in a country plagued by war and stars Ony Uhiara as Lizaveta, a woman forced to flee for her life after her husband is murdered. The play shows how her life, and the lives of others around her, irretrievably change as the horrors and realities of war begin to bite. To say too much else would spoil things, but Mullarkey’s play touches on human trafficking, religious iconography and, yes, the taste of human flesh.
The charismatic and engaging Uhiara leads a small cast – including the brilliant Tricia Kelly as a strange, menacing but ultimately lonely old woman – and Ricky Champ as Lizaveta’s friend Josef The Fool, while Laurence Spellman manages to be both poignant and skin-crawlingly creepy as the soldier, Matvey. As strong as the supporting cast are, it is Uhiara’s performance that grips you. She throws herself into the role in every sense, physically, emotionally, at one point being hoisted up the ceiling and at another nearly suffering death by drowning.
Chloe Lamford’s stage design borders on the extraordinary. It makes superb use of the Royal Exchange’s in-the-round space, turning it seamlessly from field to suburban bedroom to a bustling, neon-lit metropolis. This is the kind of design that doesn’t fade meekly into the background, it’s full-on, disorientating and sense-battering, full of disembodied voices bellowing from the blackness and objects falling from the ceiling.
Yet powerful as all this is, Michael Longhurst’s production is at times almost too busy and frenetic, to the point where it can be impenetrable. It’s sometimes hard to work out exactly what’s going on and with a running time of nearly two hours with no interval, it makes for a gruelling experience, relentless and grisly. This may be intended, but it does become testing. Even Lizveta’s monologue describing her tragic backstory, upsetting as it is and powerfully delivered, seems to go on forever.
Cannibals is a visually stunning piece of theatre, yet it’s one that seems designed to divide audiences. While some may find the force of it thrilling, others are likely to find it bemusing – particularly the portion of the play written entirely in Russian. There are some incredible individual scenes which imprint themselves on your memory, but these are too few and too far apart and at times the play feels like a jumble of ideas. Mullarkey is clearly an ambitious and exciting writer and it’s a pleasure to see a piece that aims to challenge its audience in this way, to provoke, but it’s not easiest of plays to warm to, precisely for this reason.