There have always been plays that challenge and divide opinion and the debate about censorship continues. Even in ancient Greece, where free speech saw its birth, the philosopher Plato regularly called for curbs on what was shown to the masses. British theatrical censorship ended in 1968 (and Hair! began performances the next day) but there have been regular calls for its return as dramas such as Edward Bond’s Saved, Howard Brenton’s The Romans In Britain and Sarah Kane’s Blasted have been subjected to varying degrees of moral opprobrium. Another playwright regularly in the firing line as “going too far” has been Phillip Ridley so I was intrigued to see how one of his “shockers” from 2005 had held up. Here’s my review of Mercury Fur.
Well, that was exhausting! I suppose I knew that watching a Philip Ridley play was never going to be a light hearted romp but Mercury Fur performed by final year students at The Guildhall School of Speech and Drama was about as intense as it gets. An unrelenting (two hours straight through) blitzkrieg of dystopian gloom and despair summed up neatly by the warning sign in the foyer: “This play contains violence, strobe, strong language and scenes of a disturbing nature. There will be smoking on stage, the use of haze, loud noises and cashew nuts”.
Definitely – though I’m pleased to report that the use of nuts was kept to a minimum – and much more besides! Social breakdown, predatory gangs, drug dealing, intense cruelty, casual violence, child trafficking, the gratification of extreme amoral urges and litres of blood also featured prominently and made for uncomfortable viewing. Back in 2005 when the play premiered it became a cause celebre in the vein of Bond’s Saved and Kane’s Blasted. It divided critical opinion (The Daily Telegraph called it “poisonous”), caused regular audience walkouts and the play’s publishers even refused to print the script.
Suitably braced I sat back to await the sensory onslaught. The play starts in relatively jovial mode. Two brothers, Elliott (Harvey Cole) and Darren (Joseph Potter), break into a sordid, rubbish strewn abandoned apartment which they plan to use as the venue for an organised party. Naz (Mirren Mack) from “next door” pops in and helps the siblings to tidy. They all banter with each other in a vein redolent of scenes and language in Trainspotting – this is reinforced by the copious references to drugs sold by Elliott from an old ice cream van. In Ridley’s world the drugs are live butterflies which cause hallucinations and/or amnesia. However, things take a more sinister turn in Naz’s heart rending yet strangely casual speech about her mother’s decapitation at the hands of a feral gang. It soon becomes apparent that the “party” is being held to satisfy the base instincts of the Party Goer (Oli Higginson) whose fantasy is to dress up as a Vietnam GI and then brutally torture the Party Piece (Ellis Howard) – a drugged child dressed as Elvis. Completing the picture are Lola (Brandon Howard), a transgender dresser (and Kinks’ tribute?) preparing the victim, vicious gang leader Spinx (Dominic Gilday) and his consort the blind and perpetually muddled Duchess (Isabella Brownson).
The cast are to be congratulated on making such difficult material remotely palatable and engaging. Some of the early interplay between the two brothers was very skilfully carried out and helped the audience to empathise with the not altogether voluntary predicament in which they found themselves. I was particularly drawn to the scene between Darren and Naz which showed two youngsters almost cheerfully playing among the physical wreckage as they explored the emotional wreckage of their lives. Harvey Cole’s Elliott too inspired attention and he commanded the early parts of the play with a confidence that bodes well for his future acting career (apparently Ben Wishaw originated the role and now he’s the voice of Paddington Bear!)
Unfortunately I found it hard to empathise with any of the other characters though Ashford’s Lola and Brownson’s Duchess had some touching moments. This was solely down to the writing and the situation of characters within the action of the play rather than any lack of skill on the part of the performers. Frankly if they can repeatedly mentally put themselves through the situations played out in this piece of drama then they will be able to take on any part with alacrity.
The direction of the piece (John Haidar) was taut and driven though I would question the use of shadow play for the torture scene. I’m sure if Ridley had meant us to actually see such horrors then he would not have put the action offstage and left it to the audience’s imagination to conjure up a picture of what was happening – far more effective anyway.
Ironically (intentionally so I’m sure) as the piece reached its climax it was at its most beautifully lit. The abandoned flat has no electricity and so the party organisers fall back on Naz’s stash of candles. As the horrors play out the stage is bathed in the sort of light found in the Wannamaker auditorium at the Globe. And that’s when it suddenly hit me. What I was watching was a modern day equivalent of a Jacobean revenge tragedy such as Webster’s Malfi. The amoral world, the hapless brothers, the entire cast covered in blood; there’s even a character called The Duchess!
In all it was an uncomfortable, unsettling couple of hours but I was full of admiration for the way the students brought it to life. However, I’m still torn as to whether the play itself is a piece of gratuitously violent pornography or a work of genius – I guess Ridley himself would not be troubled by this apparent contradiction. Finally, despite intensive Googling I remain totally uncertain about the meaning of the play’s title. So if anyone could enlighten me….?*
As I indicated at the start of the review this was an exhausting watch and a more than salutary glimpse into a hell on earth. But do I think that censorship should return based on a viewing of this play? Probably not, though one thing I found out after seeing the show might just have persuaded me otherwise. Apparently in the original the character Party Piece – the intended victim of the other characters – was a ten year old Pakistani boy and the actual eventual victim Naz was supposed to be fifteen. Maybe that was going too far. Any thoughts, please do let me know in the comments section.
*This review first appeared on the website of Sardines Magazine.