(Buffini’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/29.)
In Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker, a shape-shifting spirit torments two teenage mothers. It is a play about psychosis and comes with stunning and seemingly impossible stage directions such as “pound coins come out of her mouth when she speaks” and “the woman gets on the kelpie’s back and rides off”. At the Manchester International festival this month, Maxine Peake plays Churchill’s shapeshifter. The thought of seeing the play staged excites me because the language at times avoids sense. The Skriker turns the theatre into the experience of being inside a fractured mind. It also shows a desire to push theatre as far as it can go as a visual, aural, live art form. As such, it is typical of Churchill, whose collaborations with dancers, choreographers, musicians and composers have been fuelled by curiosity. They are searches for what a play might be and how a story might be told – or a reality conveyed through spectacle.
I first became familiar with Churchill’s plays when I was a student in the 1980s. Top Girls, Vinegar Tom, Cloud Nine and Serious Money – all studied or seen in various student productions. I appreciated immediately Churchill’s use of history to explore the present, and the way she used humour and music to take you into the darkness. She had wit. She had courage. She wrote songs, huge speeches, rhyming couplets, scenes about having periods! She was playful with gender.