“I’m not inclined with any of my plays to say, ‘This is about that.’ Plays are about the whole event that they are.” — Caryl Churchill
Caryl Churchill is renown for not talking about the meaning of her plays in public. A positive result of this reticence is that her plays retain their complexity as works of art. A negative result is that there is a lot of pure rubbish written about them. Ms. Churchill’s refusal to discuss a forcible meaning in her work allows critics to indulge in the most unfortunate behavior: namely, viewing her work as a springboard for their own pet theories. Ms. Churchill’s work is about “feminism.” No, wait: it’s about “environmentalism.” No, wait, it’s about “socialism.” No, wait: it’s about postmodern linguistics, Derrida, aporia and différance where meaning is deferred through the use of an excessive number of signifiers. Whatever the fashionable academic theory a la mode, it will doubtless be applied to Ms. Churchill’s writing. The further her work moves away from the theatrical and the tidy, the more dismal the criticism.
While I am hardly an academic, it is obvious that Ms. Churchill is a superior playwright whose work contains extraordinary ideas, both in formal innovation and probity of content. Yet fundamentally, I think, her work intends to be quite approachable on some level. Janice Findley’s production of The Skriker offers an excellent example. On one level, Ms. Churchill’s piece is one of her most formally abstract. Since its debut, theater critics have been scratching their heads and cursing its opaqueness.
But on another level, the play is no harder to comprehend than a Monty Python skit.
The Skriker’s roots in folklore as a shrieking bitch of a dog that appears when a family member is about to die give Ms. Findley more than enough latitude in this work to create surreal and ghastly imagery and she does so expertly. Yet much of the “reviewing” of her piece concentrates on textual matters–and are written clearly by people who have never read the play.
Much is made of the Skriker’s linguistic semio-babble speeches. In truth, one could remove the Skriker’s monologues completely and the play would still remain completely comprehensible. The scenes with Josie and Lily are completely retrograde kitchen-sink realism and are about as difficult to understand as an episode of General Hospital.
Similarly critics puzzle themselves over the dance elements of the play. But if the text were removed completely, Pat Graney’s choreography in this newest production would still stand comprehensibly on its own, just as surely as Ian Spink’s did in its debut.
I think at times Ms. Churchill has been a victim of her own reputation. Theater critics tend not to have very catholic interests, as can be seen in the essentialism with which they write about various works. Once a critic has decided that Ms. Churchill is a socialist-feminist with environmentalist leanings, the critic’s brain simply slips into cliché protection mode and sees what it wishes to see. When it finds no evidence for its pet theory in a later work of the author–well, then surely the fault is with Ms. Churchill and her work, never with the narrow mind of the critic.
Ms. Churchill’s reputation in this country rests largely upon Cloud Nine and Top Girls. Therefore she is treated as a sort of second-tier Brechtian. Viewing the play in that mind set, confusion is understandable. It has movement. It is linguistically complex. Where did those things come from? And where’s the feminism? Where’s the gender switching?
But Ms. Churchill has been playing with language since before she ever had a play staged. In her radio work, Identical Twins, both twins are played by one actor who creates a sort of verbal Moebius strip of overlapping dialogue. In Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen, also written for radio, the stuffiness of British toff speech is turned into science fiction filled with neologisms and fractured syntax. Both works predate her work for the stage. Ms. Churchill has also always had very particular interests in movement, not only obvious in her Vinegar Tom but also explicitly so in A Mouthful of Birds, the heart of which is the Dionysian dithyramb that is the root of much of Western dance. To act confused and surprised when these interests all merge in the same play merely betrays a critic’s ignorance.
The Skriker is a play where Ms. Churchill simply pursues her interests simultaneously yet with rigor. The realistic dialogues between Josie and Lily might certainly fall in that “feminist” box into which people often try to force Ms. Churchill’s work but they are more poetic than purely naturalistic. The linguistic intricacy of the Skriker’s monologues push Ms. Churchill’s long-standing interest in the sounds of words from the realm of simple utilitarian communication into the realm of poetic density. To call it Joycean or Jabberwocky misses the larger point, which is that the Skriker is, in Ms. Churchill’s own words, a “damaged” being. She is also a damaging being. As humans destroy the natural world, the natural world and its guardians destroy human language.
The vengeful Skriker exists solely to feed upon human knowledge, such as how televisions work and how advertising is created. Having fed on such knowledge, she regurgitates it into an idiosyncratic speech neither quite human prose or faerie poetry, stripping away from humans what has been stripped from her by humans: meaning. As the play ends, the natural world so dear to the faerie folk has been reduced to rubble. It is only fair that language, so dear to humans, should also be similarly reduced.
I have not talked much about the dance element of the piece because its function should be obvious. The dancers re-enact primordial stories of lust, greed, love, generation and degeneration–exactly what one expects in folk tales. Again, for Churchill this is nothing new: A Mouthful of Birds shared not only the same concern with the mythic figures behind contemporary actions but also shared the same choreographer as The Skriker in Ian Spink. The dance represents, quite bluntly, the primordial world that human folly constantly endangers throughout the play and that it ultimately destroys.
For this production, choreographer Pat Graney deftly cuts to the essence of these folk tales by converting them into ritual movements–slightly corrupted rituals, but rituals nonetheless. Her dancers are some of the most brilliant artists in Seattle: Christian Swenson, Sruti Desai, Cathy Sutherland, Aaron Swartzman and the groovy Amelia Reeber. If they do not integrate neatly into the drama it is because the drama follows no neat path. The dissonance is purposeful. These faerie folk are meant to be illustrative but invisible to the humans until the point at which a human being sacrifices something important in order to “cross over.”
Director Janice Findley consciously keeps the worlds in coexistence and contrasts the apparent simplicity of folklore about love and greed and violence and virtue with the obviously not simple modern dilemmas of the two young mothers.
If there is a weakness in Ms. Findley’s production it is not in the dance, nor in the imagery, nor in the interpretation but rather in the acting. Mary Ewald as the Skriker is fantastic. She is clearly in her element in this style of play and has a clearly rich understanding of the text. I am much less convinced by Mariel Neto as Josie. She is a very strong actress and technically gifted. But here she is also quite brusque. Josie is a hardened, cynical young woman. That much Ms. Neto performs excellently. But without a certain vulnerability, she becomes strident, unsympathetic and a bit stupid. There is not enough softness behind Ms. Neto’s hard edge for my liking. She is, after all, Lily’s alter ego in many ways and they should feed off each other as they change roles over the course of the play. Jessica Martin’s Lily has the opposite problem. She comes off too naive for me, too soft at the beginning, and when she suddenly drives off the Skriker in one scene it seems to have come completely out of nowhere. The finale of the play, too, has much more impact if Lily displays more nobility than petulance. Ms. Martin wavers here slightly. It is not a fatal flaw but I think it could be stronger.
Still, this is a beautiful production. Eve Cohen’s costume design and Paul Hansen’s brilliant sound are truly exceptional and create the ominous world of the Skriker and of contemporary England. Janice Findley, ever concerned with imagery from her film days, has chosen her crew with an exceptional eye and ear. The design sense of the play alone should impress upon any viewer the richness of the play, even if the text seems to elude easy understanding.
Not often produced–especially in England–because of its technical challenges, The Skriker has come to Seattle twice in two years. The Ghost Light Theatricals production at the Ballard Underground had, I think, an overall fine ensemble of actors. In every other respect, Ms. Findley’s production is completely superior. It is as good an argument as a playwright can hope for. While her career is already quite secure, Caryl Churchill’s plays do not often receive outstanding productions that make an excellent argument for her status as one of the most important playwrights of the last fifty years. Critics may not always understand her work but as long as artists of Ms. Findley’s caliber do, audiences will understand for themselves and the critics can do little damage.