Shapeshifting in Caryl Churchill's the Skriker

Article excerpt

Chop chip pan chap finger chirrup chirrup cheer up off with you're making no headway.

--the Skriker

SINCE THE 1960s, BRITISH PLAYWRIGHT CARYL CHURCHILL HAS TACKLED pressing social and political concerns in plays that strain against the conventions and limits of theatrical representation. She is widely known for works such as Cloud Nine and Top Girls, but her half-century oeuvre includes an array of experimental one-act dramas, successful radio and television pieces, as well as numerous interdisciplinary dance-theatre collaborations. If she is, as Tony Kushner has claimed, the "greatest living English-language playwright" (qtd. in Savran 24), this honor should be linked to her groundbreaking experiments with the fantastic. From Mad Forest's ravenous vampire, to Fen's furious revenants, to the temporal paradoxes of Traps, to the cloned doubles of A Number, Churchill's work repeatedly challenges expectations in an industry whose mainstream is still dominated by naturalistic writing. Of all these forays, her 1994 play The Skriker, which debuted at London's Royal National Theatre (directed by Les Waters), stands as one of the boldest attempts in recent decades to explore theatre's affinity for fantastic worlds and creatures.

The play is produced frequently on stages worldwide, despite being initially regarded by critics as one of Churchill's least accessible works. Though set in contemporary England, it begins with "a giant riding on a piglike man, throwing stones" (9), an image foreshadowing the phantasmagoria that will infuse the dramatic landscape: a Kelpie, a Green Lady, a Brownie, a Dead Child, a Spriggan, a creature named Rawheadandbloodybones, to name just a handful. The strangeness and symbolic obscurity of these creatures is exceeded only in the Skriker itself, whose eight-minute prologue ("Slit slat slut. That bitch a botch an itch in my shoulder blood ... " [9]) announces one of Churchill's most radical experiments with language. This eponymous entity, described tersely by the playwright as "a shapeshifter and death portent, ancient and damaged" (9), latches onto two young women named Josie and Lily, the former of whom has killed her own baby for reasons that are never explained. After Josie's release from a psychiatric hospital, Lily gives birth to a child of her own, and what could be called the play's plot follows the struggles of these women to make a life for themselves while evading the insidious Skriker. In a succession of scenes, the creature alternately seduces, harasses, threatens, and leaches upon them, taking numerous forms--a reeking homeless woman, a mouthy child, a lonely male suitor--seeking all the while to lure them to its grotesque Underworld. Josie, who succumbs to its pressures midway through the play, manages to escape from its nightmarish realm and return to Lily, but the women must work desperately to appease the Skriker whose malevolence threatens to manifest itself in graver and graver cataclysms ("Volcanoes. Drought. Apocalyptic meteorological phenomena ... " [48]). The play culminates in Lily's brave decision to give herself over to the Skriker for the sake of her child's safety, but Churchill leaves her audience with a most daunting image. In a post-apocalyptic future, a monstrously deformed great-granddaughter "bellows wordless rage" (56) at a horrified Lily who crumbles immediately to "dustbin" (57).

Those commentators attempting to extricate a central message from The Skriker have predominantly focused on "damage." One of Churchill's rare comments on the play's intention suggests that it deals with "damage to nature and damage to people" (qtd. in Kritzer 168). Katherine Perrault's analysis is one of a number that, in light of Churchill's extensive theatrical engagement with issues pertaining to women's identity (Top Girls, Vinegar Tom), suggest we understand the play in terms of the damaged feminine:

   Viewed as the essence of that which is woman, the Skriker is
   deformed and corrupted by years of her own ensnarement: her
   dysfunctionality results from succumbing to the hegemonic practice
   of defining herself by her reflection in the patriarchal
   mirror--which Churchill manifests in the Skriker's subversion,
   seduction, and eventual domination of Josie and Lily. …