Athenaeum Theatre Basement, Dunedin

20/10/2016 - 22/10/2016

Production Details

I’m going to be around when the world as we know it ends. Some people might feel concerned by that. But it makes me feel important.

In this horror fairytale the Skriker, an ancient death portent, chases and torments a pair of teenage girls. Meanwhile the girls, Lily and Josie, are struggling with mental illness, motherhood, and their relationship with each other. They are surrounded by a host of creatures from British folklore who tease, seduce and consume the humans with whom they come into contact. 

The plight of the two girls reflects the struggles of the world around them. The realities of pollution, disease and climate change are looming, while humanity is preyed upon by supernatural creatures. Caryl Churchill’s vision was apocalyptic when the play was written in 1994, and may be even more so now. 

This production makes use of the atmospheric underground of Dunedin’s Athenaeum to create an immersive experience. From the moment they enter the space, the viewer is part of the action. Fairies and demons flow through and around the audience, who are told stories, made part of the performance, and watched hungrily. 

The Athenaeum Basement, 24 The Octagon, Dunedin
October 20-22, 2016
All shows 9pm
$25/$20 concession.
Tickets through Dashtickets, limited door sales may be available.
R13. Contains themes of suicide, abuse and sexual violence.

Starring Kimberly Buchan as the Skriker.
Introducing Millie Cossou and Katie Morris.

Production design by Craig Storey
Costumes by Sofie Welvaert  

Theatre ,

Disturbs and delights in equal measure

Review by Terry MacTavish 22nd Oct 2016

All Hallows’ Eve: when the boundaries between the living and the dead become blurred, and malevolent spirits prey on human souls. So go on, scare yourself out of your sophisticated socks this Halloween with The Skriker.

Of course our southern seasons are topsy-turvy, with late afternoon sun shining on bright azaleas flowering in spring gardens, instead of dusk stealing ominously through grey Dunedin streets, but the basement of the Athenaeum has been transformed into a place of bizarre nightmare, peopled by terrifying creatures dragged from the depths of the human psyche. 

Little Scorpions Productions has made a bold choice with The Skriker, but has risen courageously to the challenge under director Kerry Lane to produce something extraordinary. Few playwrights can match the dazzling and daring imagination of Caryl Churchill, her astonishing range and breath-taking coups de théâtre. She has never shied away from uncomfortable topics, sexual frankness, and sometimes grotesque violence.

This play uses figures from English folklore to explore some of our deepest fears: stolen children, changelings, mothers who destroy instead of nurture, and the destruction of Mother Earth itself. The Skriker – it comes from Old Norse, skrikja, meaning screech – is a harbinger of death, a shape-shifter of evil intent, perhaps the more dangerous because she seeks, and seems to offer, love.  

Hunting a baby – to love or to devour? – the Skriker emerges from the Underworld accompanied by a throng of other menacing mythical figures, curious hybrids, who swarm around the nervous audience.  Kimberley Buchan is magnificent in the title role from her first appearance with curly horns and insect wings, spewing a stream-of-consciousness rant with echoes of old nursery rhymes, jaunty commercials, and foul obscenities. It is both diabolically clever in its free word-association, and as lyrically poetical as Dylan Thomas: “But if the baby has no name, better nick a name, better Old Nick than no name, because then we can have the snap crackle poppet to bake and brew and broody more babies.” 

The Skriker already wields power over Josie, confined to a psychiatric ward because she has murdered her baby, and now she sets her sights on Josie’s friend Lily, who is about to give birth to hers. In true Faerie tradition she offers to grant wishes in return for what she wants, and transforms herself into different characters, from needy child to sexy man, to entice Lily to give up her child.  

Josie meanwhile is transported, along with the bemused audience, to the Underworld, like Persephone in Greek mythology, or all those Celtic tales of people spirited away by Faerie Folk. There the creatures entertain her with a macabre banquet, which could be altogether too gruesome, did Lane and Buchan not bring a measure of grim humour to the script.

As the Skriker’s scheming requires, and in a remarkable feat of shape-shifting herself, Buchan is old, young, male, female, androgynous, elegant, grungy, vicious, charming … even American! The acoustics of the basement are not helpful to an actor, but Buchan’s voice dominates the space with apparent ease. 

Katie Morris as Josie and Millie Cossou as Lily find this harder to do, and their softer tones are sometimes lost, but they are promising young performers who convey a vulnerability that is touching. Consequently Churchill’s harsh treatment of their characters seems needlessly cruel; one of the reasons the play is so disturbing. And of course it is unsettling trying to decide what is real and what illusion – the demons could well be figments of Josie’s imagination, a case of post-natal psychosis.

Churchill inflicts a dose of existential angst on us too. Surprisingly for 1994 she recognizes the danger of failing in our duty of caretaking the earth, and allows the ancient Striker to prophesy: “It was always possible to think, whatever your personal problem, there’s always Nature.”  But in the future, “the sun will kill me … Spring will come but nothing will grow.”

Fortunately Dunedin’s artistic community is small enough to have become adept at combining diverse talents and art forms, and Lane has gathered a team that offers plenty of compensation for all this darkness. First is the sheer magical beauty of the folkloric monsters, Bogles and Kelpies and Brownies and so many more:  Rawheadandbloodybones, Black Dog, Green Lady, Nellie Longarms, and the Radiant Boy who, terrifyingly, whirls fire around his half naked body. All wear utterly gorgeous, fabulous costumes by gifted designer Sofie Welvaert: ravishing surrealistic hybrids which have been shown as teasers on the company’s excellent Facebook page, along with fascinating little descriptions of their place in folk legend.

Further, they have been choreographed by award-winning dancer/ choreographer Hahna Briggs, each according to their assigned qualities, one tireless dancer even representing the youths who are danced to death as punishment, like the faithless lover of poor mad Giselle. The creatures guide the captive and captivated audience between the performance spaces, maintaining a constant flow of threatening movement around us, and succeeding in making us feel rather as if we are inside a painting of hell by Hieronymus Bosch. 

The already deconstructed surroundings are madly atmospheric, and have indeed been successfully exploited by various productions like Farley’s Arcade and Metamorphoses.  Production and technical designer Craig Storey has continued this fine tradition by working magic with wisps of fog and clever lighting, as well as shreds of atmospheric music.

Given the dangerous aspect of some manifestations, especially the whirling fire sticks, I am relieved to see the experienced Miguel Nitis supervising our journey as Stage Manager. Altogether the actors and crew show commendable focus and commitment.

In the past, directing and/or acting in Churchill’s Cloud 9, Top Girls and Vinegar Tom, I found the politics so fearless and the stagecraft so ingenious that it was impossible not to fall increasingly under her spell, but does her writing still have relevance for a younger audience? My guest belongs to the Generation Z that will face the catastrophe Churchill foresaw; she was not born in 1994, when the play was first staged. Her eyes are shining. Good.

“Honestly,” she confides, “I am a little confused as to what the overall plot was, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. After a while I almost felt like we were in another world. I found that when it ended, I didn’t want it to! It was such a powerful ending but it’s left me wanting to know more! This was a performance I will never forget.” And now she is texting her friends to join her for a return visit.

Little Scorpion should pride themselves on bringing the genius of Churchill to the next generation, in a production that disturbs and delights in equal measure.


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