Caryl Churchill is a playwright who doesn't ever make it easy for an audience. As evidenced by her previous cannonwhich includes "Mad Forest", "Top Girls", "Cloud Nine", "Light Shining in Buckinghamshire"the British dramatist chooses complex subject matter, filters it through complex dramaturgical structures, and often uses difficult language, thick with arcane terminology, obscure references, broad dialect. The trade-off is that, if you work with herand make no mistake, it is work, at least as much as entertainmentthe rewards are numerous, resonant, profound, lastingand sometimes unsettling.
"The Skriker" at the Public Theatre, seems no more difficult than the rest of her catalog, yet it is the first I've ever seen where throughout the show, in dribs and drabs, small pockets, here and there, audience members get pissed off enough to walk out. (Actually, there were walkouts at the Broadway transfer of "Serious Money"but that had to do with an inferior production, and that's another story.) The huge majority of the audience sticks, and are enthusiastic in their approval by the endbut I did wonder at the walk-outs. Wondered why these people felt compelled to book. I'm not sure I have the answer...but I do have a theory. Bear with me, I'll get to it.
I don't know quite what Ms. Churchill's underlying metaphor is; but taking the play's story at surface value, it seems to explore mental illness as the direct result of a cosmology inhabited by demons, sprites and færies, whose intervention and interference can drive you mad. Or make you appear so. As a backdrop, there's a tapestry of recurring possessors and possessees, who wander the stage in a nightmare landscape, unseen by "normal" human eyes. While in the foreground, we watch Josie (Caroline Seymour), a young working-class woman in a mental institution, who finally casts off the meddling færiethe Skriker (Jayne Atkinson)who has dogged her heels for years with promises of wishes come true. Though no wish granted has ever come without an ironic twist. Josie tries to convince her single, but pregnant best friend, Lily (Angie Phillips), that the Skirker is real; but all Lily sees is an older mental patient to whom Josie is being unkind. Attracted by Lily's compassion, and especially by her soon-child (babies are valuable currency in the underworld) the Skirker recognizes a much more fruitful mark than Josie, and endeavors to attach herself to this new girl's life. She appears to Lily in various guises, in an attempt to wear down her resistance, engage her sympathy and be "adopted." Lily, eventually, succumbs. And then the real trouble begins.
In synopsis, it sounds fairly simple and straightforward. But little is straightforward where Ms. Churchill is involved; the story is punctuated by other stories, by glimpses of the underworld, by long, rambling monologues made by the Skriker in a thick Scots burr that free-associates words and sounds, such that meaning, if you don't remain painfully alert, is obfuscated by nonsense phrases and superfluous imagery.
(I'm reminded of my favorite sentence in Richard Adams' anthropomorphic novel, "The Plague Dogs". There's a scene in which a Scottish fox expresses to one of the title characters a sentiment that, in American slang, might go: "You're out of your friggin' mind, and I don't want any part of it. I'm gettin' the hell outta here." Only, in the fox's native dialect, Adams has him say: "Och, ye great fond nanny-hammer! I'm away!" Ms. Churchill makes similar, hard-to-penetrate, yet bizarrely delightful choices for her Skriker.)
And I think the reason why some audience members leave is, Ms. Churchill gives no quarter. She is no less compromising in "The Skriker" than she has been in any other playbut in this one, she postulates a universe that operates on principles that are (to us) totally unfamiliar. Fans of horror fiction (Clive Barker films especially) will appreciate her baroque imagery, the Hieronymous Bosch landscapes (amplified and realized by set-costume designer Marina Draghici) that are occasionally invokedbut put those together with a dark tale, unfamiliar legends, a structure that is only jaggedly linear, and language that is often quite deliberately impenetrable...and there are those who will feel that they're being excluded.
Director Mark Wing-Davey, a regular interpreter of Ms. Churchill's work (also a fine actor, perhaps best known in the States as Zaphod Beeblebrox in "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy") coddles the audience no more than the playwright. He has guided his cast to performances every bit as uncompromisingly bold as the material. Boldest and bravest of all is Jayne Atkinson in the title role. Playing a character who is as likely to be in disguise as anyone, anywherea Long Island matron, a lost child, a cockney bag ladyas she is to appear as her filthy foul-mouthed, nattering self, Ms. Atkinson's portrayal is a tour de force of remarkable power. She has, for a long time, been a reliable journeyman player, special indeed, but never quite in a spotlight that would do her full justice. "The Skriker" may change that.
If you can bring your own courage to the theatre, just enough to meet the artists halfway, and absorb the high concentration of culture and language shock, you may find that "The Skriker" will draw you in, rewardingly, memorably...and as inevitably as the conniving little færie draws in her victims...
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