Review: Mercury Fur ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Review: Mercury Fur

Mercury Fur by Philip Ridley, directed by Ben Packer. Designed by Adam Gardnir, sound design by Kelly Ryall, lighting design by Danny Pettingill. With Paul Ashcroft, Gareth Ellis, Fiona Macys, Luke Mullins, Aaron Orzech, Russ Pirie and Xavier Samuel. Little Death Productions @ Theatreworks, Melbourne until September 16. Bookings: 9534 3388. Griffin Theatre, Sydney. September 27-October 13. Bookings: 1300 306 776.

If you want to see the best show in town, head down to Theatreworks and buy a ticket to Mercury Fur. It is, quite simply, brilliant theatre. But don’t expect to walk out with a song in your heart and a smile on your lips.

British playwright Philip Ridley’s dystopian work offers darker pleasures. It’s set in a parallel London in which mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Britain is in the grip of an unspecified war, savage gangs rule the streets and most people escape reality by eating hallucinogenic butterflies.

In such total societal collapse, anything goes. Brothers Elliot (Luke Mullins) and his brother Darren (Xavier Samuel) are part of a small family business: they are party planners. The parties have only one guest, and their aim is to realise the violent sexual fantasies of those with sufficient cash to pay for it.

For all its fantastic dress, Mercury Fur is, as Anthony Burgess said of Clockwork Orange, a play about now. It’s a savage indictment of a world in which conscience is a luxury that people can ill afford. At the same time, it’s a deeply touching meditation on how, even in the worst of circumstances, human beings cling to those they love with a desperate and hopeless loyalty.

Mercury Fur was considered so shocking on its UK premiere that Ridley’s publisher, Faber, refused to publish it. While some critics loved it, Ridley was also accused of peddling filth and of getting off on his own sick fantasies. Such criticisms miss the mark widely. For one thing, the realities Ridley deals with are no more shocking than those digested nightly with the evening news bulletin.

It is, after all, only a play. I have never quite understood the logic that gets outraged by the representation of unpleasant realities, as if it were somehow worse than the realities themselves. Certainly, those who accuse Ridley of indulging a sick imagination are ignoring the fact that some of the worst stories revealed in the play were taken verbatim from accounts of the massacres in Rwanda. And it’s hard, for example, not to see a direct connection between Ridley’s play and this. Anyone who thinks that theatre should stick to “nice” topics and leave the world alone is arguing for its irrelevancy. One of the most exciting aspects of this play is how urgently it speaks out of the present.

Ridley’s text evokes a horror that is all more potent for its matter-of-fact delivery. Thankfully – and sensibly – the real violence takes place off-stage, although we overhear it, but the language itself is violent, jammed with every linguistic obscenity that Ridley can think of. This brutalised language plays against a jagged and surprising lyrical beauty, the love between the broken family at the centre of the play, for example, or in the yearning memories of a time “before”, when things were different.

Mercury Fur might be said, in fact, to be more than anything else a play about memory. Here memory – the means by which we know ourselves – is dislocated, distorted and erased by drugs and trauma. The notion of history, or cultural memory, barely exists. Elliot is the repository of story, the one who, despite his apparent brutality, attempts to hold on to his humanity through his recollections of a kinder past; but it becomes clear that his memory is equally the locus of his anguish. It is much easier not to be conscious, to escape into the drug-fuelled virtual reality offered by the butterflies.

Mercury Fur derives in part from the work of writers such as Heathcote Williams or Howard Barker. But it has more in common with young “blood and sperm” German playwrights like Marius von Mayenburg. Like Mayenburg’s Eldorado, seen here at the Malthouse last year, Mercury Fur describes a literal, rather than a fantastic, reality. In both plays, the act of imagination collapses geography, bringing home to the west the atrocities that are usually a comfortable distance from us in places like Rwanda or Baghdad.

This insistent sense of reality is reinforced by the style: it is actually written in a distorted naturalism, occurring in one scene over real time. Again intriguingly like Eldorado, the central relationships are familial. Both plays are, curiously enough, forms of domestic drama, troubled examinations of what a family might be under the pressure of social anarchy. Although Ridley seems to imagine a family in which the female - blinded and maddened by atrocity - is all but extinct, it's a vision which is paradoxically shot through with a teasing shimmer of optimism. He is quite correct to claim that it is a play about love.

Ben Packer’s production powerfully realises the extremities of the play. Adam Gardnir’s design recreates the Griffin Theatre’s small triangular stage in the cavernous space of Theatreworks, making the action uncomfortably intimate. The rest of the space is curtained off, so we are aware of the emptiness of the rest of the building, as if we really were in a towerblock.

With Danny Pettingill’s subtle lighting design, mostly consisting of a bank of yellow lightbulbs filling the “window” at the back of the stage, and Kelly Ryall’s almost subliminal score, the set unobtrusively and effectively creates an environment for the play that permits no escape for the audience. But the real value of this production is in its performances, which are remarkably unafraid.

In the role of Elliot, Luke Mullins strengthens his claim to be the best actor of his generation. He is breathtakingly good, leavening a disillusioned, dead-eyed menace with a profound tenderness that makes the anguish of Elliot searingly legible. As his brain-damaged brother Darren. Xavier Samuel manages a mixture of brutalised innocence and poignancy that goes nowhere near the sentimental, and is a great foil for Aaron Orzech as the hapless but disarmingly honest intruder Naz.

Young actor Russ Pirie, showing that he’s another talent to watch, gives a standout performance as the transvestite Lola, and Fiona Macys, playing the blind Duchess, is a revelation. In comparison, Gareth Ellis’s perfectly able performance as Papa Spinx, the patriarch of this unlikely clan, lacks a little verisimilitude: there are marvellous moments, as when he gently outlines the Duchess’s lipstick, but it’s difficult to see why people are so afraid of him. And as the psychopathic "guest", Paul Ashcroft is the most chilling character in the whole play; he behaves like a young city executive who's going abseiling.

So what are you waiting for? Hie thee hence and book your tickets; this is theatre of the first order, and you’ll be sorry if you miss it. Just take a deep breath before you go in.

Picture: Luke Mullins in Mercury Fur. Photo: Dan Stainsby

A shorter version of this review was published in yesterday's Australian.


Matthew said...

I want to see it again. Maybe I'll treat myself for my birthday. Not that it will for a particular pleasant treat, exactly...

My review coming soon. I've been too busy with this other bloody thing. It's finished now, though, clocking in at just under 5,000 words. The experience of writing it was akin to paper-cutting my eyes over and over.

Alison Croggon said...

Congratulations Matt! Was this a form of aversion therapy? Are you now an ardent theatrical convert?

Well, if it's theatre like this, it's totally understandable. It would certainly be worth another look. and I'd be curious to know what the impact would be next time around.

naive theatre goer said...

I thought the play was good but I have some reservations about the positive reactions of some people I've talked to. Alison says that "I have never quite understood the logic that gets outraged by the representation of unpleasant realities". Just as puzzling to me are the people who think that excessive over-the-top violence, etc., automatically constitutes avant-garde cutting-edge theatre that we should all swoon over. A couple of people I know who loved the play seem to fall into that category.
I think the point extends to "representation of unpleasant realities" that don't involve violence on stage. I know people who swooned over David Hare's "Stuff Happens". I thought it was the most mind-numbingly tedious 3 hours I'd spent in a long time. You could of course conceivably have an excellent play covering the unpleasant realities of how the Bush & Blair got into Iraq, etc., but just trotting out something that is not much different from a chronological newsreel of events that just about everyone already knows about doesn't make something good theatre.

It's a bit analogous to the divergent reactions to profanity in humour. Some people are outraged by excessive profanity in comedy. But at the other pole are, e.g., comedians who think that swearing a lot makes them funny and that people who don't laugh at them must lack a sense of humour. Of course sometimes extremely funny stuff does involve extremely obscene and profane material and wouldn't be funny without it. But there are some people who think that being profane makes something funny, which of course isn't true.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi NTG - I get your point there. And perhaps I ought to have made a qualification: dealing with topics that are confronting requires a concomitant ethical care from the artists involved. Or so I believe. And for me Ridley demonstrates that ethical care - part of it exists in the displacements of the play's fictionalising, part of it in the deep compassion with which he portrays his characters (with the exception I think of the Guest), part of it in his language itself - so for me the play was a powerful indictment rather than mere gratuitous exploitation. Which, yes, such things can easily be.

I have a lot of problems with David Hare, actually, because work like Stuff Happens assumes a transparency and a moral stance that ultimately I find troubling. Partly my objections are the same as yours (why have a play when a documentary would do it better?) but they go deeper than that too. I think imagination has an ethical dimension, an ethical necessity. But that's a very long argument that I can't fit in a comment! All the same, one might see it feelingly, as it were...

TimT said...

I'll certainly make time to see this, even though I'm not sure from comments whether it's a Savage Indictment of the Casualisation of Violence and Media Banalisation or a Dystopian Fantasia Set in an Entropic Future World With Important Societal Themes.

Either way it should be a jolly romp! But being an afficionado of 1960s Sci-fi, I'm still holding out for the production of Elric of Melnibone: the Opera.

TimT said...

And I plead guilty of the charge of indiscriminate random use of italics in the course of an internet discussion.

Alison Croggon said...

Sentenced sir to three months in a chatroom with random teens omg!!!!!!!

It's probably both.

As for Elric: The Opera: You know, it's not such a bad idea, especially as contact lenses are so cool these days - no problem with those ruby eyes. Maybe you could dig up King Crimson (or was it Blue Oyster Cult - didn't Moorcock play with them?) and talk them into it...

Troubador said...

Moorcock co-wrote songs with Blue Oyster Cult and made some live appearances with some of their band members, though I'm not sure if he played with the whole band.

I don't know if he had a King Crimson connection but he did actually record with Hawkwind.

Planning to See Mercury Fur based entirely on your recommendation, Alison, and I'm taking a couple of friends. (How does it feel to have such power?)

Another reason I'm going is that I read Ridley's play The Pitchfork Disney about twelve years ago and it left a strong impression. I thought about it again after your review of Esteidfodd (I saw its first season) and it suddenly occurred to me that there was a strong resonance between the two plays. Wondering what you think?

Alison Croggon said...

I hope you and your friends enjoy it then. (If you don't, I'll be in the witness protection program.) Shamefully, this is my first acquaintance with Mr Ridley, so I don't know. It wouldn't be at all improbable. I've actually been reading Snoo Wilson the past couple of days, and seeing resonances there...

Troubador said...

If my friends don't enjoy the show, I'll need the witness protection program.

our man in berlin said...

RE: Melnibone the Opera. Splendid idea. Just make sure it's got enough cow-bell.

Anonymous said...

well now I hope you ppl liked the play because I haven't seen it yet and I probably never will either cause my sister is the main actress in there the duchess, I would like to see it but I work my ass off work like no tomorrow but yeh write back and plz tell me what you think.