What do Percy Blythe Shelley’s poem The Masque of Anarchy and Caryl Churchill’s play The Skriker have in common? Very little on the surface, aside from that both were adapted for the Manchester International Festival by director Sarah Frankcom with the Bolton-born actor Maxine Peake. This year’s The Skriker is a unique and nightmarish piece, but it also contains a continuation of politically charged themes beloved by its director and star.
The play, which is performed at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre as part of the Manchester International Festival, involves a shape-shifting fairy queen who drags young girls into the underworld. In a virtuoso monologue, Peake throws herself into the Skriker role for the play’s eight-minute opening segment. “Slit slat slut. That bitch a botch an itch in my shoulder blood,” Peake gaggles amid the sprawling speech of free associational rhymes when stomping across the audience members’ tables, commanding their attention like an impassioned mystic.
The following scene commences the storyline, although it provides more questions than answers. A teenage girl name Josie has been institutionalised for killing a baby. She is visited by her friend Lily, who is pregnant with her own. Josie tells the teenaged, single mother she is haunted by a figure at the hospital; she looks like a patient, but she is actually hundreds of years old, and wants her ‘to wish the baby back’. Even these ‘real world’ scenes never feel more natural than the initial prologue, as the Skriker’s dancers – visible to the audience, but invisible to the girls – silently jitter and twitch in the shadows.
The story only gets more bizarre as the Skriker openly stalks the girls and transforms into a new disguise with each appearance, including a psychiatric nurse, a derelict vagabond, and even a small child. Just as impressive as Peake’s chameleonic acting is the minimal yet ominous look conjured by the Royal Exchange’s production team. Theatre-goers sit at wooden tables, which the actors use in lieu of a stage, and so the distinctions between the play’s two realities – of our world, and of the Skriker’s netherworld – are rarely clear. In a show-stealing centrepiece, the Skriker takes Josie into her realm, where other entrapped souls are shown feasting on a banquet in a bacchanalian frenzy; it’s made even more enthralling when audience members are removed from their seats beforehand, as they are only inches away from the tumult.
The Skriker is at once a source of clingy possessiveness and bitter retaliation towards the two young girls, which suggests she is not a spirit of evil but of vengeance. After all, as frightening as the Skriker’s world of supernatural folklore may be, Josie and Lily remain abettors in a society so driven towards progress, it leaves behind a widening trail of social, spiritual and ecological decay. “You people are killing me, do you know that?” she says. “I am sick, I am a sick woman.” Like The Masque of Anarchy (2013), which Maxine Peake had read aloud at the Albert Hall at the previous Manchester International Festival, the text has political implications. But whereas Shelley’s poem calls for political freedom, Churchill’s play is a cry for help, a howl of despair for our damaged world.
The Skriker continues at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 1 August. For tickets and information, visit www.mif.co.uk.
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1. Maxine Peak in The Skriker. Courtesy of the Royal Exchange Theatre and Manchester International Festival.