By Tom Barry
A harrowing tour-de-force mired in violence; drug-addled and raw; a feverish nightmare of a world reduced to its base elements and basest impulses. Philip Ridley’s contentious play has been labeled as both the product of a sick, expletive-fuelled mind, and a thrillingly bold leap into new dramatic territory. Ridley himself has likened it thematically to the school of Greek Tragedy, with violence alluded to but never shown, and York Dramasoc’s revival keeps true to this wish: to create a new space wherein certain questions may be asked more forcefully and vividly than anywhere else.
The world of the play is frayed at its edges; recognisably like our own but, following a catastrophe, undergoing a rapid, likely permanent decline. The post-apocalyptic genre is a tired one, often overwrought. What sets Mercury Fur apart is that the death of civilisation is delivered not by demonic horsemen or nuclear war, but on the wings of the butterflies which inexplicably appear, causing memory loss and violent hallucinations in those who swallow them. The characters we see are the few to have survived, by wits and chance. The squalid, haggard set design by Ruby Sevink-Johnston (a style which seems to suit the Drama Barn immensely) provides an arena for the actors to prowl and collide within, almost never fully lit. Confusion is the prevailing sense, with anxiety boiling beneath the surface.
The actors all deserve praise for remaining focussed for the entirety of the play’s two hours
The performances are clean and well-suited; Mercury Fur has been fortunate in its casting to find actors more naturally placed here than many other parts I recall seeing these actors in. John Chisham’s range as the transvestite Lola was like nothing I’ve seen John do before: contained and vulnerable where others are loud and brash. The chemistry between him and George Rayson’s Elliot is especially impressive given how little time it is given to express itself (a common failing of the script, so eager is it to show everything that it rushes its most interesting component, the relationships). The actors all deserve praise for remaining focussed for the entirety of the play’s two hours, sans interval, bringing the intensity of emotion necessary to make us believe their characters’ circumstances. Sophie Shepherd’s threat as Spinx comes from her relaxation where others are nervous, and would be irredeemably egocentric were it not for Sam Finlay’s enigmatic and sensitively-portrayed Duchess, so traumatised by her loss that she requires Spinx‘s continual care. The nearest thing to a pure evil the play has is made matter in the form of James McIlwrath, who is so gleefully perverse that it is clear humanity has fallen far indeed.
The play’s flaws are all but completely in its writing, suffering from fantasy tangents more fun to write than to listen to, and several potential endings. Ridley tries to shock and appall us with monsters, then turn the mirror on us and ask “what separates us from them?”. The setting has parallels with active war zones which would have made the plot more relevant, but Ridley isn’t concerned with plot anything like as much as with his characters. It is character-driven: yet the characters are incapable of arcs, given that they must constantly react to new challenges. They are truly pitiable, and Ridley’s assumption that without law and order, all would plummet to the depths of vindictiveness he describes, strikes an implausible note against the backdrop of their apparent benign personalities.
Mercury Fur is not for the faint of heart (its panoply of trigger warnings sees to that) and it’s proved itself already to be a polarising piece. I recommend it not for its themes or core social commentary (which did not move or convince me), but for the performances of the actors, constructed in an exceedingly short time and which retained my interest throughout.
Mercury Fur by Philip Ridley.
Performing at the Drama Barn this Saturday and Sunday at 7:30pm. Tickets available on the door and online (£4/5). Trigger warnings include: intensely graphic language, use of racial slurs, language of a sexual nature, scenes of gore, torture, and death.