Butterflies in the stomach

Rarely have I watched ‘theatre’ so devastating, so heartfelt, so immediate as the recent Warwick student production of Philip Ridley’s _Mercury Fur_. This phrasing is clumsy though; ‘watched’ doesn’t quite feel like the right word. _Mercury Fur_ was performed two weeks ago as a site-specific promenade in a reclaimed crack-den in South Leamington — needless to say, a world apart from its original staging – pushing the conventional understanding of theatre, along with all of the assumptions that go with that. Promenade theatre shakes up the traditional stage/seating, performer/audience binaries by picking a location and forcing the audience to share the space.

I said ‘watched’ doesn’t quite cover it, and this total relationship shake-up is why. As an audience member you feel closer to being a participant than a spectator. Leaving the production on May 7th, you felt more like having just left the set of a movie, or to lower the tone a bit, as if you’d just walked out from the pensieve in _Harry Potter_. In fact, that analogy works unfortunately well. Given the lack of space, the limited furniture, and the dozen or so audience members, the actors would often converse and violently throw one another around mere inches in front of us. One could quite easily be pinned into a corner by the actors, who throughout remained masterfully ignorant of the milling spectators.

The promotional website offers some thoughts on the play’s underpinning concepts: “Outside is a warzone. A split lip beyond repair. Race, religion, sexuality come second to survival. Fuck Words. If only we could remember them. Boundaries are buried with the dead.”

The plot is relatively straightforward. Two brothers, Elliot (played by Ollie Jones) and Darren (Clem Garritty), enter an abandoned flat with torches –the audience, too, are armed with torches, for the site is pitch black. The brothers are setting up for a party. The nature of this party is not immediately apparent, and as with the wider context of the fiction, hints and clues are given away in dribs and drabs. But flashes of a gun handle accompanied by the dilapidation of the location is enough to put an edge on the proceedings. They are soon joined by Naz (Anthony Almeida), an inquisitive adolescent who lives in a neighbouring flat. After Elliot reluctantly allows Naz to stay, the three continue to prepare for the party. References to a ‘party piece’ arouse suspicion until they drag in an unconscious boy (Will Temple), confirming a sinister objectification. The menace of the situation is compounded by the Party Piece’s incongruously gold, sequined dinner suit, created by Lola (Scott Menzies). The arrival of the party’s organiser, a physically intimidating Spinx (Josh Green), accompanied by the psychologically fragile Duchess (Bathsheba Saskia Piepe), shifts the dynamic of the dialogue towards a nervous volatility, in anticipation of the imminent arrival of the Party Guest (Alex Petrides), who has paid for the pleasure of torturing and ultimately killing the Party Piece. When the already-ill Party Piece dies prematurely of malnourishment and general mistreatment, Naz is seized upon by Spinx in desperation. The survival of the group seems intimately tied to the masochistic ritual going ahead.

Aside from the well-executed artistic vision of the director, Kay Michael, and the rest of the production team, _Mercury Fur_ is perhaps strongest in its creation of a rich dystopia through the scraps of explanatory dialogue. For my own part, drawing more from literary than theatrical experience, the world conjured up had a taste of those depicted in Marge Piercy’s _Body of Glass_ and Margaret Atwood’s _Oryx and Crake_. In short, the sense of decay and ruin of a proletarian society teetering on the edge of self-destruction, with a distant, largely unseen corporate/military elite.

The context is never fully explored, however, and this is no bad thing. To fit a fully formed explanation of how their world came to be would have come across as contrived. The website’s tagline, “Fuck Words. If only we could remember them” alludes to a crucial thematic underpinning. Throughout, reference is constantly made to ‘butterflies’ of different colours and patterns, from the ‘white butterfly’, mythologised to the point that origination and even its true colour have been forgotten, to ‘two-tone blue’. These butterflies all have one common trait: their hallucinogenic and memory-destroying properties. (Hence the tagline.)

These effects offer (convenient) cause for context elaboration within the dialogue. Both Naz and Darren listen with rapture to Elliot’s tales of the early days, after the ‘storm’ that brought the butterflies. The Duchess, too, exhibits the same drug-induced amnesia, having been fed an autobiography by Spinx that draws more from _The Sound of Music_ than her own past. Exemplified by Darren’s naïve recalling of the JFK assassination –involving Nazis, napalm and other historical incongruities- this loss of meaning in language offers some moments of genuine humour, whilst at other times being both shocking (compound phrases of racial and sexist slurs) and poignant.

The production was supported by a number of strong performances. Although under constant pressure not to make eye contact with an audience who was intimately scrutinising every minute action and facial expression, the cast kept the fourth wall intact, and visibly showed their emotion at the climax of the final scenes.

The run-down flat itself is also hugely significant in terms of how an individual audience member experiences the narrative and character interaction. It was dimly lit, with a number of rooms used for the action, often simultaneously by different cast members. Whilst a number of holes in the walls allowed you to see through from the kitchen to the lounge, and from the lounge into the hallway, it was impossible, given the number of the audience, to have a clear view of the action at all times. This undoubtedly led to a number of qualitatively distinct experiences. The effect was sometimes reminiscent of old films, in which violence, a la _Psycho_, is heard but not seen. On other occasions the very physicality of some scenes pushed you into a corner, or against a wall, out of fear of being caught up in the violence of the performance. In this sense, the blur between participant and spectator was most profoundly felt, and the acting so convincing — perhaps emphasised by the intimacy of the environment — that you often found yourself wishing to intervene.

It is just a shame that, given certain health and safety concerns, not to mention the limited space, more people could not come to experience _Mercury Fur_. Since its inception in 2005, the play has been riddled with controversy, though, based on this most recent production, it falls on the side of intellectual provocation, as opposed to vacuous obscenity.

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