Having seen more than my fair share of plays, whether they are professional or student productions, I judge the quality of a show by how quickly I want to write my review after it (even if I’m not technically reviewing). It’s 11.18 pm and I finished watching Mercury Fur about an hour ago. I probably would have sat down sooner if I wasn’t physically shaking.
Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur has a history of controversy: famously banned by Faber & Faber, this play follows a set of closely intertwined characters in an almost-apocalyptic world in which butterflies are drugs and ‘party’ is synonymous with your darkest fantasies. The characters spew lines of racist slurs, beat each other and themselves, and draw the audience into their intense relationships.
This is, without a doubt, one of the most exciting scripts I have witnessed. The characters are so distinct (with the intentional exception of the Party Piece) and complex, each simultaneously lost in a state almost akin to childhood, and sadistic. Ridley is able to showcase his prowess by writing Elliot’s insults as epic similes; this is highlighted by his ability to then undercut this often satirical and humorous style with a conversation wrought with emotion.
I am extremely passionate about ‘in-yer-face’ theatre: Ravenhill’s and Kane’s plays are on my shelves, and yet I have unfortunately not been able to see them performed. To call a text ‘in-yer-face’ seems to miss the point, I have realised after tonight’s Mercury Fur. What makes it so disturbing, so violating, is actually being in the presence of it.
Director Jacob Lovick absolutely understood the importance of this. Staged in the basement rehearsal room of the Guild, the audience was instantly removed from the student bubble and into a dingy flat strewn with the signs of depleting life. The play utilised the whole space, creating a sense of claustrophobia: the characters moved around the audience, absorbing them into the world of the play. The lack of interval was also a nice touch (a la Shopping and F***ing): there was no escape from the unrelenting emotions.
It really does take a stellar cast to pull off a play like this: get it slightly wrong, and the uncomfortableness you’re trying to create will be plain awkward. This cast not only succeeded in making me cry a grand total of three times (which is quite a feat; I’ve only ever cried at five films and maybe one play), but made me feel physically uncomfortable: I couldn’t sit back in my chair, I wanted to escape and stay simultaneously, my skin was crawling and I was shaking at the end of the performance.
I was utterly astounded by the quality of the acting in this production; not only did I forget that I was watching a play in the Guild, I forgot that I was watching students act. Calum Witney was by far the stand-out member of this cast. His accent and ability to master Elliot’s swings of emotion was phenomenal. Ben Firth also made an excellent Darren: he was able to capture his naivety and pure adoration of Elliot. I particularly enjoyed the scenes between Witney and Firth; I truly believed in their bond as brothers, not only through Ridley’s writing, but the actors’ execution of it.
When Naz was introduced into the mix, I instantly prickled: Ridley introduces a character that is quite frankly annoying. However, Alice Hodgson made her loveable. I felt sincere concern for the character, and was utterly horrified when I realised her fate. Additionally, Hodgson’s performance of Naz’s monologues and her character post-torture were incredibly convincing and very distressing to watch.
David Williams was a genius choice for Lola. The text calls for a man to play this part, but at times Williams’s mannerisms and expressions were so convincing I almost forgot his sex. The chemistry between Witney and Williams was also entirely believable, and I found the scenes between the characters incredibly touching.
Daisy Tudor was fantastic as The Duchess, deftly exploring her character’s tortured mental state through carefully selected movements and delivery of lines. Pairing her with Danny Hetherington as Spinx was also a brilliant move: while I was oddly intrigued by and pitying of The Duchess, Spinx’s devotion to her was unsettling, and Hetherington’s ability to switch into Spinx’s sadistic mode was excellent. Jack Fairley still made an impression with his minor role: the Party Guest was utterly creepy and disgusting from the moment he stepped into the room, let alone when he revealed his dark fantasy.
The crew of this production must also be praised highly: the effects and make-up used in the play were very convincing; I felt entirely immersed in the world of Mercury Fur.
The point of in-yer-face theatre is to push its audience to the very limits. There were points during the performance where I really wanted to leave but was oddly impelled to stay. What I struggled with was my desire to stop it – I really did feel like it was all unfolding around me – and also the range of emotions I experienced: at one moment I would be disturbed and sickened; a matter of seconds later, I would be laughing, and I felt incredibly unnerved by this. This is why I love plays like Mercury Fur: at the end, I feel like someone has reached inside my body, pulled something out and made me really look at it. With in-yer-face theatre, the audience is made to look at themselves and assess how they would act in certain situations or evaluate their behaviour and emotions. There is betrayal at every level in this play, sadism, cruelty, anger, and love. It is a truly exceptional example of postmodern nihilism and an intense exploration of the human state, and I (strangely) loved every minute of it.
by Jenna Clake