Shivered (2012), by Philip Ridley, continues his ferocious gaze over the dysfunctional contemporary world: The Pitchfork Disney (1991), Vincent River (2000), Mercury Fur (2005), Leaves of Glass (2007), Piranha Heights (2008). Although Mr Ridley is writing of the United Kingdom, it is not difficult to realise the parallels legitimate to our own environment.
Shivered is set in a fictional, collapsed industrial town, Draylingstowe, where poison from a car factory has disfigured and killed children; where unemployment has thrown its inhabitants into chaos; where refuge is found in the National Service and danger in Iraq; where solace is found with drugs and the digital tools of new media – misused, misunderstood or not; where beheadings, murder, suicide, and extra-curricular and violent sex is on the ‘menu’ for the normal possibilities of escape.
The play is a series of jumbled, shivered scenes (we begin with scene 5, next is scene 12, and the last is scene 6. There are 17 scenes) presenting interwoven journeys of two families surviving the fracturing of their dreams with forensic confrontations of danger and ugliness. Says Alec, the elder son of one of the families, a resting veteran of the savage war in Iraq:
This place – it’s over, Dad. I’m not talking about fucking Draylingstowe! Jesus! Your mind – it’s so fucking … small. I’m talking about EVERYTHING, Dad. ALL of us. This thing we call our fucking way of life. It’s in the death throes. Don’t you see that? It’s kicking and grasping and struggling – but there’s no more air. It’s over. We’re like … like dinosaurs bedazzled by all the pretty lights in the sky, too fucking stupid to realise it’s a comet getting closer and closer … – And this way of life … this is what you want me to come back to, eh? This fucking … terminal illness – You’d rather I was here than back out there (in Iraq)?
Mr Ridley, who is also a favourite writer of children’s fiction, for us adults balances the clouds of despair covering this dying civilisation, with these people of Draylingstowe seeking and finding belief in another world, and whether it is in the alien (UFO) world of dad, Mikey, and son Ryan, or that of the faith of Evie – the ‘healer’, her companion Gordy, late of the circus-fair, and of her son, Jack, it is a hope. HOPE. And, maybe the catastrophe that Alec, above, sees is simply an illusory contour – i.e. ” When we see several things – lights like this – and your eye sort of … makes connections. Joins them up. See unifying shapes where there are none. …”
Well, Dad he lit the fireworks. He told me ‘Stand back, Ryan! Fireworks can be dangerous, son!’ So I stood back. … Then, Bang! The whole sky explodes with colour. So bright. The fireworks light up all the whole hill. And … I look up and … I see them. … They’ve left the safety of their ships and they’re flying in and out of the fireworks … They’re weaving in and out of the sparkling fire … Their wings are bright gold … And I start to feel so calm and … peaceful. Like everything’s going to be okay. I feel so happy. I start to laugh. Because I realise the aliens – they’re talking to – Talking to me with feelings inside my head. They’re saying, ‘You are safe … you are safe … ‘ I shout up to them, ‘I am … I am … I am …’
Illusory contour or not, it gives Ryan hope.
As in the amazing recent film Mommy by Xavier Dolan (2014), a film that charts a mother surviving with her son with a severe ADHD illness, and the recent SBS documentary Struggle Street, despite the trauma of life, the prospect of the resilience of the human being does spawn hope, even in the darkest of circumstances. The power of this play is that. That message. I found it comforting, and the experience of this play/production rewarding.
This production mounted by Mad March Hare Theatre Company, a young Independent Co-op company, at the Pact Theatre, have adventurously attempted to realise this formidable message in this wonderful but taxing play. On a raised all-white, distressed environmental set, that stands in for different locations, daringly lit in fluorescent colours of startling glare, this Production Design is by the artistically prolific Benjamin Brockman. Jed Silver provides a Sound Design of tremendous affect and variety. Director, Claudia Barrie, assisted by Garth Holcombe, have guided the acting company: Josh Anderson, Joseph Del Rio, Rhonda Doyle, Libby Fleming, Andrew Johnston, Brendan Miles and Liam Nuan, to energetic and committed performances (though having a breathless, just ‘falling-over-the-line’ kind of feeling to it) that keeps one engaged to solve the format of the structure of the work, which is a jigsaw of narrative and emotional tension. The puzzling of the jigsaw keeps us, the audience, from too subjective a response to the distress of the world of these characters, and has us other than just ‘feeling’ our way through the journey, but ‘thinking’ our way through it, as well.
Shivered is a difficult but stimulating experience – one that looks at our present world with a steely clear sightedness but with compassion and hope. One wishes that the principal companies in Sydney, occasionally, revealed such enterprise, and delivered a similar, a relative, quality of work (considering their funding aid), as this. Despite the modesty of their resources, Mad March at the Pact Theatre, gives me a feeling of being part of the contemporary world dilemma and debate, something that neither the Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir have done for some real time. It seems the Poor but Independent sector of the Sydney Theatre scene has a finger on the living pulse of the world and its dramatic literature. Thanks to all working to do so in the ‘wilds’ of Erskenville.
Mr Ridley has three poetic quotations at the beginning of the text, that highlights his vision as an artist:
I can be happy in what you call the dark but which, to me, is golden …. – Helen Keller
We plough the dust of stars and drink the universe in a glass of rain. – Ihab Hassan
.. time is the fire in which we burn. – Delmore Schwartz
Company: Mad March Hare Theatre Company
Venue: Pact Theatre, Erskineville, Sydney
Dates: 9 – 30 May 2015
For more of Kevin Jackson’s theatre reviews, check out his blog at Kevin Jackson’s Theatre Diary
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television