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August 03, 2015
“Who will speak for the environment?” asked Warwick University ecocritic Dr. Jonathan Skinner, in the Summer of 2015. Attending productions such as this – The Skriker at the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester – we all do. “It’s about what we’re doing to the planet”, said one spectator to the group of friends sharing the programme with her, as we waited to go in and take our seats. She could be sure of this because the programme for this production includes plenty of environmental cues. The Introduction (written by Director Sarah Frankcom and Lead Artist Maxine Peake (playing the part of the Skriker)) describes the Skriker as ‘environmental fury in extremis’, and the play as ‘a call to arms from the Earth herself’. The same programme features an extract from Naomi Klein’s climate change polemic This Changes Everything. Oddly enough the play has not always been seen this way by its audiences even though The Skriker first came to the stage in 1994, not long after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Critical responses to the play at the time do not say much about the environmental message. The story of the moment, back then, was feminism.
But, forget what’s in the programme. For me, the penny-dropping climate change moment, speaking volumes about climate change culture in 2015, arrived in the Underworld in the form of a spectatorial laugh. It happened when the Skriker was trying to persuade Josie to drink some wine so she would be trapped in the Underworld for ever. Josie (Laura Elsworthy), shilly-shallying (she was obviously dying for a drink), said: ‘Yes, but I don’t want -’. The Skriker: ‘Don’t you want to feel global warm and happy ever after? Warm the cockles of your heartless.’ For me, the chuckles I heard in the audience, in reaction to this cajoling ‘global warm’ moment, say something important about a change in the way people think about the environment. Of course I cannot speak for everyone there, but, when I laugh (as I also did at this point in the play), it’s not usually about something the programme pointed out. Here (for me) it’s because the language has forged a witty, ironical connection to something Nico Frijda would describe as an emotional matter because it is a ‘daily life concern’. My reading of this chuckle at this particular moment is that the stunning poetry of The Skriker, performed in 2015 in Manchester, connected to the emotions (via the daily life concerns of the environment and climate change) more readily than it seems to have done in 1994.
Of course such emotional connections are not easily made. They tend to arise in the context of excellent performances, in which the acting is good enough to evoke sympathy, empathy and identification with the protagonists (c.f. Sauter), for the audience. Maxine Peake’s performance as the Skriker was, quite simply, stunning. At times her voice was mesmerising (it was easy to see why Josie failed to resist the wine); at others her tone was chilling, alienating, even terrifying. Executing virtuoso switches between roles across a wide register – from child to vamp to old woman – Peake WAS the Skriker. The Skriker, being the Skriker, dominates, but other narrative threads were also impactfully performed. Josie and Lily (Jumah Sharkah) delivered a horrifying narrative of abuse and abandonment, in which babies were casually killed, tortured or dumped. The beautiful singing of some words sometimes turned absurd ideas – such as the Hag (Jessica Walker) searching for her head, heart, arm, leg on the feast table – into a heart-rending experience.
Of course I don’t know if this production had this effect on everyone – after all it’s fashionable to say there is no such thing as an audience. In this production of The Skriker, there were at least three identifiable audiences. On arrival, spectators with stalls tickets were guided by torchlight through a spooky subterranean passageway into the performance space – a seven-sided dilapidated arena furnished with wide trestle tables. (At one point some spectators had to be ushered out of the way by the dancers to make room for the action.) The spectators-turned-onlookers gazed up through a slightly murky haze at the faces encircling them on two levels and wondered what they had let themselves in for. I was one of those submerged down in the infernal basement, under the gaze of the other circles of hell; this configuration and the close proximity of the performers certainly intensified my own experience. It was, quite simply, amazing to be carried away, embedded in the rip-roaring operatic Bacchanalian feast in the Underworld.
Caryl Churchill (1994, 2015). The Skriker (London: Nick Hern Books, 2015 reprint with a new cover and cast-list).
Manchester International Festival. Programme: The Skriker by Caryl Churchill. 2-18 July 2015. Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.
Nico H. Frijda (2007). The Laws of Emotion (New York and London: Routledge).
Willmar Sauter (2000). The Theatrical Event. Dynamics of Performance and Perception (Iowa City: Iowa University Press).
March 20, 2015
Even in early spring, plays performed in the Rose Playhouse, Bankside’s archeological Tudor theatre, must be frugal with time, for modern conveniences such as heating and water closets are not provided. (You can warm up with a brisk walk to the facilities at the Globe if necessary.) In this case the fast-moving plot, well-paced delivery, short duration of the performance, and blue blankets provided by the Rose are sufficient to mitigate any minor bodily discomfort occasioned by the mid-March chill. Music is the first thing to warm the senses: 1950s pop songs play spectators into their seats, punctuate key scenes and often enhance humorous moments. From an ecotheatrical perspective, this production comes across as a lean, mean, thus suitably Lenten theatrical event.
Lenten or not, this comedy is not about frugality, but excess. The acting company (directed by Jenny Eastop) is absolutely on the nail in enthusiastically over-egging the wide range of emotions in performance here – horror, surprise, sorrow, anger, love, greed, frustration, mirth, angst, arrogance, avarice, lust and glee, to name just a few. Moll, for instance, is interpreted by Beth Eyre as a classic sulky teenager, big adolescent gestures communicating silent groans at the cringingly embarrassing antics of her appropriately named (maudlin) mother (Josephine Liptrott). When I saw it, little chuckles from the audience suggested others also appreciated Moll’s entrance in the Scene 1 squabble with her mother to the well-known lyrics of Dion and Belmont’s 1959 rock ‘n’ roll song: “Why must I be a teenager in love?” Later, when the ghastly Maudlin and gormless Yellowhammer (Stephen Good) run off to the riverbank in pursuit of their errant daughter, they all dash (precariously) round the edges of the Rose Playhouse pool, to the music of The Flight of the Bumble Bee (and the sound of a few loud laughs from the audience, some of whom may have been reminded, as I was, of Chaplinesque chaotic pursuits).
As everyone knows Lent is about abstinence, except that all anyone seems to think about in this play is indulging to the utmost in food and sex (and rock ‘n’ roll), ever in pursuit of wealth and power in both domains. Perhaps recalling some of the alleged excesses of the City pre credit-crunch, most of the protagonists are trying to cheat the system. The regular food double-entendres – goose, dish of birds, mutton, sharp-set stomach, selling flesh – draw out the interconnectedness of different forms of over-reaching. In the whirlwind of obfuscations our sympathies are with Touchwood Junior and Moll who naughtily conspire to have her goldsmith father make the wedding ring for their elopement. It is ordered right under his nose to fit his own daughter’s ring finger and inscribed with a rhyme about stupid parents, and even then, he doesn’t get it. But, this treatment is only fair: left to himself he would be content to see her married to the oleaginous Sir Walter Whorehound. This is a comedy so the guy gets the gal and the Whorehound gets his comeuppance – very nicely done by actor Andrew Seddon, who hilariously changes gears from arrogant insatiable lecher to abject penitent coward, when an injury reminds him of his mortality and the hellfire that surely awaits.
The question is, why does orchestrator Allwit (Timothy Harker), the willing cuckold who helps make Whorehound’s excesses possible and gleefully profits from them into the bargain, emerge unscathed from the casino? For a possible answer we need the ecological sub-text at work in the food fraud running through the play, brought to the fore in a key incident in Act II, Scene 2 (59-209) which is cut in this production. In the text,* the ‘Promoters’ (Lent compliance enforcers) are out-manoeuvred in a verbal skirmish with meat-cheat Allwit, turn a blind eye to corrupt meat-eaters who sufficiently grease their palms, and come down with the full weight of the law on the ‘poor’ country wench ‘fool’ enough to walk by with a joint of lamb on view in a basket. They soon realise they have been duped – her aim is to leave them holding the baby hidden beneath the lamb.
This disturbing practical joke seems to me to be where it is in the play text to reinforce the point that the rise or fall of almost everyone in this play, including Allwit (who sees himself as running the casino ‘box’ (bank)), rests on the transactional value of living things, children for land, babies for meat, fertility for money. This is nothing less than social bankruptcy in performance, and as this play amply demonstrates, its consequences are waste, profligacy and over-consumption at a time when the opposite should prevail. Such social conditions potentially spell ecological death – an important message in 2015.**
This unkind cut doesn’t change the fact that this is a really funny, theatrically effective production on the evidence of the spectatorial laughter and applause it evoked on the night I saw it, and the warm buzz of conversation as we all left afterwards. Nevertheless the danger of being frugal with Thomas Middleton’s tightly constructed play is that the crux of the matter may be lost: in the ethical void at work in Chaste Maid lie the seeds of spiritual, social and environmental destruction. This Lenten comedy is nothing less than a brilliant dearth play in disguise. It’s a good laugh – and it’s enough to frighten all who see it out of their wits.
Stephen Good (Yellowhammer, a Goldsmith); Josephine Liptrott (Maudlin, Yellowhammer’s wife); Beth Eyre (Moll, their daughter); Andrew Seddon (Sir Walter Whorehound);Harry Russell (Touchwood Junior); Richard Reed (Touchwood Senior, his brother, also a Porter); Timothy Harker (Allwit, a neighbour and cuckold); Fergus Leathem (Sir Oliver Kix, also a Parson); Alana Ross (Lady Kix, his wife, also Allwit’s servant). Director: Jenny Eastop; Stage Manager/Operator: Ricky McFadden; Press and Publicity: Kate Johnston; Costumes: Sarah Andrews; Graphics and Design: Felix Trench.
Thomas Middleton (1999). ‘A Chaste Maid in Cheapside’, in Plays on Women, edited by Kathleen E. McKluskie and David Bevington (Manchester: Manchester University Press).*
Thomas Middleton (2012). ‘A Chaste Maid in Cheapside’, edited by Alan Brissenden, in Four Plays (London: Bloomsbury).
Edward F. Ricketts, Jack Calvin and Joel H. Hedgpeth (1985). Between Pacific Tides, revised by David W. Phillips (Stanford: Stanford University Press). **See p. 456.
Living things that are depleted by long-run environmental stressors (such as persistent insufficiency of water and nutrition), still alive but unable to function as part of the ecosystem they belong to, are referred to by Ricketts as ecologically “dead”.
Theatre Programme: Mercurius Presents A Chaste Maid in Ch£ap$ide, by Thomas Middleton, directed by Jenny Eastop (The Rose Playhouse).