Sarah Frankcom and Maxine Peake’s contribution to this year’s Manchester International Festival is light-fingered and bone-deep. They’ve torn up the floor from the Royal Exchange’s main space and filled the whole with cracked tiles, melting ice, neon light and dirty concrete. The luckiest members of the audience (myself not included) find themselves sat in the hollow where the play takes place, at long tables more banquet than picnic, their heads now at the level their feet were five minutes ago in the foyer.
Peake lurches on across the tables as the titular Skriker in this production of Caryl Churchill’s 1994 play. Peake’s body moves as if in a constant state of vomiting herself up, looking like something out of a Marilyn Manson music video and sounding like Stanley Unwin aged a thousand years. She spits out cryptic, poetic strings of puns and free association. Trying to find meaning is like pulling threads from a tapestry in the dark, some are long and keep going, some disappear as soon as you find them, all dragged from a whole you know is there but can’t see. The whole effect is overwhelming, indecipherable and marvellous.
Beyond these opening minutes, The Skriker is dense, with speech, with cast members, with images, with lighting, with sound design. Watching the piece, Peake may hold the centre but constantly the ensemble cast fill every crack between her and the walls, like illuminations at the edge of a medieval manuscript. There was a bloke dancing like he was at a Happy Mondays gig. From start to finish. Nothing big, just dancing, and dancing, and dancing. Life a personal, quiet compulsion.
Towards fulfilling my own compulsion, The Plot emerged sporadically and revolving about Peake’s Skriker, an old and hungry thing somehow inexperienced in the world that has grown around it. She flicks between her cravings, haunting Josie and Lily – played by Laura Elsworthy and Juma Sharkah – appearing in whichever form suits her purpose, but always needing them. All is driven by a vacuum, emptiness and unfulfilment – characters move from place to place, pulled by yearning. Something is rotten at the core. This great vacancy is hidden within the density of the direction and choreography, illuminations and all.
Mid-play, we are collectively dragged into an underworld as ornately hideous and beautiful as the best work of Guillermo del Toro. The audience who are sat at the tables are danced off to the edges to make way for a grotesque banquet. The centre cannot hold and again an empty and endless hunger rules the scene, decadence, gluttony and a total absence of progression. There’s a vitality at risk, desperation screaming below the surface of The Skriker’s visuals. It is a warning.
Everything in the scenography – designed by Lizzie Clachan, lit by and performances effortlessly evokes the ancient. Blake may have written about ‘feet in ancient time’, but Churchill drags bones up from the earth. Green and pleasant land? The Skriker inhabits an England where age is not kind, an England that has played host to infanticide, cannibalism, centuries of theft and power. The land is not benevolent – here we have the old folk tradition, of the land that needs you to survive and is prepared to take what it wants from you. We may have our televisions and motor cars, but the earth will swallow us back when our wasted days are up.
The overriding sense that The Skriker communicates is its absolute confidence in abandoning language and narrative. I’ve seen theatre cling to those things far too much. With The Skriker, I left with the sense that everything necessary had been said, and of all the tricks that had been used to speak, language was not the half of it.