I have known plays lapse into surrealism, absurdism, profound bizarre-ness, and perhaps even sheer illogicalness, however it is rare for a play to do this as smartly, bitingly or frisson-inducing-ly as The Skriker at the Pilch has managed this week. For the uninitiated, Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker is a grimy Rumplestiltskin-esque fairy tale for modernity. The eponymous centuries old spirit, portrayed here by a variously conjoined Will Spence, Anushka Chakravarti and Kate Weir, haunts the mind of a psychologically damaged woman (Imo Allen) and then her close friend (Aleatha Redfern). At a tight hour long run time, this is a whirlwind of a show – refusing to pull any punches and playing on the audience’s perceptions of where the imaginations of characters meet the ‘reality’ of the play-world.
It is testament to director Mary Higgins and the work of the cast just how slickly this terrifying, shape shifting, ancient vampiric creature is rendered. A lot of this comes from the costume design work of Rosie Mullan. The three actors portraying the creature appear in a mish mash of flesh toned fabrics, zips and straps – evoking what I imagine a strait jacket made out of human skin might look like. These nightmarish outfits come in particularly useful in building a cohesive and consistent character across the three individual actors. This sense of cohesion reaches its peaks during a series of raving monologues, where the three actors speak in unison to spine chilling effect – the sharing, interchanging and pacing of these monologues (which are given to an individual actor in the original text) is masterfully done. Churchill’s language is deeply compelling, drawing on a Derridean sense of the inability of words to evoke meaning other than in reference to other words. Spence, Weir and Chakravarti slide flawlessly from aphorism through monomyth to idiom and beyond. As an audience member, it is genuinely possible to lose yourself in the perpetually shifting and self defined language games that the play invites us to partake in – I think this is the great strength in this play’s relationship with issues of mental health because it stresses the dissonance between internal lived experience and external reality.
Physical theatre has become a buzzword in Oxford theatre of late – particularly the work of Gruffdog Theatre, whose production of Rhinoceros last term (also in the Pilch) won such plaudits for its ability to evoke feeling through inventive and stylised movement. Movement is enormously important in Skriker, much of the shape-shifting and magic is evoked primarily through the movement of the three actors. The cast is very good and painting a series of sketches of ideas with their movement – bent over double as the old lady on the bus, Weir imperious and towering and Chakravarti oscillating between wide eyed petulant childlike innocence and filthy mouthed rabidness. Whilst the movement is effective at evoking these broad brush stroke paintings of ideas and feelings, in places it lacked a consistency and rhythm. Largely I think these issues will abate as the run continues, and it is a testament to the production that a few missteps did not jeopardise the veneer of the Skriker.
The issue I had was that whilst I was utterly sucked into the stylised, heightened world of the Skriker and its magic, the depiction of the reality within which this monster operated felt somewhat empty as a result. There was no effective change in the environment in which the action took place, and thus the play lacked the sense of a narrative thread – it darted from emotion to emotion with great efficacy, but when it came to pushing home the actual changes in the lives of Allen and Redfern, I felt disconnected from their suffering and from their reality. This doesn’t undermine the experience of the play, and is a flaw drawn more from the writing than from this production, but it did somewhat dampen a lasting emotional response to the play. Overall this is an impressive production that might have been a little bit rough around the edges in places, but absolutely achieved the fundamental driving purpose of the play by being profoundly surreal and deeply creepy.