Late in Caryl Churchill’s play, the title character, the Skriker–”a shape-shifter and death portent, ancient and damaged”–is trying hard to seduce Lily, the young woman whose love she so desperately needs. In an attempt to get through to her she says:
“Have you noticed the large number of meteorological phenomena lately? Earthquakes. Volcanoes. Drought. Apocalyptic meteorological phenomena. The increase of sickness. It was always possible to think, whatever your personal problem, there’s always nature. Spring will return even if it’s without me. Nobody loves me but at least it’s a sunny day. This has been a comfort to people as long as they’ve existed. But it’s not available anymore. Sorry. Nobody loves me and the sun’s going to kill me. Spring will return and nothing will grow. Some people might feel concerned about that. But it makes me feel important. I’m going to be around when the world as we know it ends. I’m going to witness unprecedented catastrophe. I like a pileup on the motorway. I like the kind of war we’ve been having lately. I like snuff movies. But this is going to be the big one.”
When she started speaking, this angry and malevolent faerie did not intend to reveal so much; her rage gets the better of her. But what she says here is at the heart of the play. The earth is sick; human beings have brought on its fatal illness, and nature is about to get even. Nowadays, Nature likes a snuff film.
Churchill wrote this play in 1993; it premiered at the National Theater in London in 1994. In it, she draws heavily on British folklore and mythology. The Skriker, “not a major spirit, but a spirit,” is hungry for the love and respect human beings once extended to the faerie world–the mysterious creatures and spirits of the earth who for tens of thousands of years personified mankind’s understanding of nature. Goblins, Spriggans, Bogles, Elves, Fairies, Brownies–both helpful and dangerous–represented man’s more organic, and more ancient connection to the world: a way of understanding an existence in which it was imperative to live in balance with nature, to treat every element of the landscape with caution, respect, and more than a little fear.
The last vestige of that way of looking at the world perished with the Industrial Revolution. Respect has been replaced with arrogance, caution with foolhardiness, a wise sense of balance with a prodigal destruction of the irreplaceable. The world, with its swelling population, dwindling resources, and stifling poisons is hurtling toward catastrophe. The Skriker, a sick but ferocious representative of an older understanding, re-emerges from the underworld, determined to strike back at the bringers of this global disease: human beings. At her back follow other ancient creatures, equally damaged and equally out of place, but just as determined to avenge a savaged planet. What the Skriker wants, so she says, is a human baby, ostensibly a means of bringing a revival of the ancient powers of Faerie. But what she’s really after, or at least so Churchill implies, is the eradication of the human future. After the next mass extinction, whether by means of a good-sized asteroid or self-induced, the planet would renew itself in a mere few million years: the blink of an eye, in geologic time.
You will likely leave the theatre feeling there were parts of this play you didn’t understand. The play is deliberately abstract, indirect and dense. It is written and presented in a fragmented fashion. It is not necessary that you comprehend everything to appreciate the show. Much of the show is aimed at creating a feeling of mystery, wonder, and dread. We hope that our acting performances and visual approach will accomplish that.
When Caryl Churchill tells a fairy tale, it’s not likely to conclude with happily ever after. In THE SKRIKER, the author of CLOUD 9, TOP GIRLS and MAD FOREST takes a surreal character extrapolated from English folklore and brings it into the present to deliver a disturbing message about a world out of balance.
The Skriker’s guises include (among others) an old crone, a pretty fairy and a female psychotic sexual hustler. The Skriker seeks to avenge its unsettled spirit by insinuating itself into the lives to two impressionable young women: one is pregnant and the other in a psych ward for killing her baby.
“I was certainly wanting to write a play about damage — damage to nature and damage to people, both which there’s plenty of about,” the press-shy playwright told THE NEW YORK TIMES in 1996. “To that extent, I was writing a play about England now. Where this didn’t come from was any desire to write an escape into the airy-fairy.”
In its initial run at the Royal National Theatre and in the 1996 production at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, reviews were largely laudatory while stressing that THE SKRIKER is a thick and challenging work. “Caryl Churchill’s astonishing new work is hardly a source of comfort,” critic Ben Brantley wrote in THE NEW YORK TIMES, describing the play as “a toxic variation on A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT’S DREAM.” Everything in THE SKRIKER, even language, seems to be mutating.