Manchester International Festival / Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
For the Royal Exchange Theatre's contribution to this year's Manchester International Festival, the familiar glass bubble of the theatre has been somewhat transformed.
Entering a darker than usual auditorium, the audience is either seated in the usual balcony seats or, if in the stalls, at long wooden tables that double as staging for the play, recalling Grotowski's 1963 production of Marlowe's Dr Faustus in Poland. The whole theatre looks like it is made from weathered concrete and wood, giving it the appearance of an abandoned underground car park (designer Lizzie Clachan).
This is a play with a troubled history. Churchill worked on it for eight years while she was also writing other plays before sending it to director Max Stafford-Clark in 1991, who worried that it was unstageable. After several months of work, Stafford-Clark concluded, "I cannot really get into it... I find it obscure beyond belief".
It was another three years before it finally opened at the National's Cottesloe Theatre starring Kathryn Hunter, receiving a lukewarm critical reception, and then two years later Mark Wing-Davey directed it for New York's Public Theatre, mischievously suggesting that even the playwright understood "somewhat less" than all of it.
The play opens with the Skriker, a kind of ancient fairy spirit, giving a monologue in what Churchill has called "damaged language", which perhaps recalls Beckett or Joyce and depends for its syntax more on word association games than on logical grammar. While it is possible to grab some meanings at times, most of this remains quite obscure.
From here we flip from the underworld into an asylum, except in Sarah Frankcom's production we don't, as the opening also seems to be in an asylum with the Skriker as one of its patients and others wandering around as post-Peter Brook theatrical mad people in dirty vests.
Churchill flips between the difficult to understand underworld scenes and others that are written in her more naturalistic style of prose. It is here that we discover the story of Josie (Laura Elsworthy) who has been locked up for killing a baby and her pregnant friend Lily (Juma Sharkah) who visits her and tries to get her out.
However the shapeshifting malevolent spirit, becoming a bag lady, a rich American woman, a little girl and a man amongst others, latches onto first one girl and then the other, granting wishes in order to keep them in her world.
There are lots of tropes of folk tales and horror movies in the play and the production. The underworld is peopled with characters dressed in sinister faux Elizabethan costumes with the Skriker as a nightmare version of Elizabeth I. Josie is told that if she eats or drinks anything down there, she will never be able to return. Years spent in the fairy realm take no more than a second in our world. Those sorts of things.
It is certainly an impressive piece of theatre. Maxine Peake gives her usual intense, committed performance in the title role, but there are great performances also from the other lead actors. The transformed auditorium provides a wonderful atmosphere, although it's a shame the press were all shunted to the balconies to overlook the spectators who were right in the thick of the action.
Some atmospheric music is provided by Antony (of "and the Johnsons" fame) and classical composer Nico Muhly, especially the stunning operatic choral work towards the end.
But for me the obscurity was a bit much to take in for a piece that ran a good quarter hour over the 1 hour 40 advertised time with no interval. While technically impressive, if you come out understanding more than half of the play, you've probably done better than me. And possibly than the playwright, if Wing-Davey is to be believed.