Behind the scenes of The Skriker: How the Royal Exchange was transformed for MIF15

Polly Checkland Harding
Photo of Maxine Peake in an elaborate dress

The MIF audience is transported into an apocalyptic faerie world at The Skriker – we went behind scenes at the Royal Exchange to find out how.

We got wind of how radical the transformation of the Royal Exchange theatre was going to be for The Skriker when a picture of the ground floor seats being removed popped up on the MIF Facebook page. Going behind the scenes in the run up to the opening night, we had an exclusive look at the costumes and the stage – and discovered a brilliantly conceived setting, semi-derelict and ominous, with the cast’s wardrobe ranging from gothic grandeur through to an odd kind of innocence. However, an interview with Lizzie Clachan, the show’s designer, revealed that the development of the final set wasn’t easy.

“In all honesty, when I first read it, I was quite freaked out, because I was like ‘I don’t understand it, I really don’t understand it,’” Clachan remembers, referring to the twisted, free associative language used by writer Caryl Churchill in the play. “I had that initial moment where I was like ‘is this all about faeries, and goblins – what is this Caryl Churchill play about goblins?’” she laughs. “It was about having the discussion; ‘are there really blue men,’ you know? In the texts, she does describe what people look like, so we could have gone down more of the route of strange, faerie-looking people.” Instead, Clachan and Sarah Frankcom, the play’s director, chose to focus on a far more human strangeness.

The play is full of visual surprises – flowers appear from nowhere, as do fountains

The audience on the ground floor sit along long tables that jut into the middle of the stage, so proximity becomes important; though the actors are dressed with only subtle visual gestures to otherworldliness, like a rogue ear, a missing shoe, a clown’s smile of lipstick (they’re definitely not blue), their closeness is immediately unnerving. Clachan worked closely with choreographer Imogen Knight, and both were inspired by The Stage, a book of photographs in which photographer Donigan Cumming arranged his friends in awkward, off-kilter poses that lend a vague peculiarity to the shots. This worked for their interpretation: “the faeries here are inmates, people on the outside of society, who are just barely able to live amongst us,” Clachan explained.

There are more direct references to faerie folk law, with the recessed spaces circling the stage all interconnected to echo the energy of the faerie ring, but the most obvious inference is of a hybrid nuclear station cum mental institution, influenced both by the play’s content and the theatre’s circular lighting rig. “The whole environmental, apocalyptic vision in this play – about global warming and what will happen to us – that’s the message of The Skriker to humans, so we wanted to find spaces that were once occupied, but are now left abandoned,” says Clachan. These outer “portals” each have “a sort of flickery, electrical residue of human occupation, and so now the idea is that the faeries are occupying these spaces,” she explains.

The play is full of visual surprises, woven into the design; flowers appear from nowhere, as do fountains, and sliding doors enclose the ground floor audience in a candled underworld. So, the experience of The Skriker might be striking and mysterious, but the magic behind it is mechanical.

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