Philip Ridley is one of the most controversial playwrights of the past decade and
The violent denouement and final revelations of Mercury Fur are unflinchingly bleak.
Elliot (Jacob Crossley) and Darren (Benny Ainsworth) are brothers existing on the fringes of a post-apocalyptic society in London’s East End after a series of catastrophic riots has left their world destitute. The only things that exist for certain are bombs and butterflies. The characters play dangerous games, cutting shady deals in order to survive and make sense of the dystopian logic that controls the parameters of the world of the play. Their currency is the mysterious strain of hallucinogenic butterflies which has become an emblem of the new, ravaged world after appearing in a violent storm through layers of sand.
The actors step up to the bloodthirsty challenge of presenting Ridley’s vision of chaos and violence. The cast is strong as an ensemble and there are some powerful individual performances. Crossley adeptly brings Elliott’s blend of eloquence and expletives to life, engaging in childish games to reassure the younger, drug-addled Darren that they will be safe in this new, burnt-out, gang-ruled world. Naz (Harry Stopps) is their new friend, desperate to be involved in their enterprise. Played with hyperactive, naive intensity - skipping manically about the stage throughout the performance like a “monkey in a cage” - Naz reminds us of the dangers of drug-fuelled memory loss. He recounts with increasing excitement the story of his sister’s rape with a troubling detachment: he is so overjoyed at his faculties of memory that the content takes on a subdued role in his narrative. Darren has become so desensitised that he barely blinks at the account. Elliot is the only one who refuses to take the butterflies and must shoulder the burden of remembering. Crossley delivers Elliott’s bleak monologue on times forgotten with a sharp blend of regret and anguish, recalling the day he awoke and violence ruled the streets. He wishes he could forget, but it is his duty to remember. Ridley’s violent poetry flowers in the play’s monologues. Killing is like “exploding a jewellery box in slow motion.”
As the “party” begins, we meet the dangerous Sphinx and the Duchess. The tension, never far from breaking point in a Ridley play, shifts into overdrive as the play hurtles towards its shattering conclusion. The Duchess lives in her own virtual prison, swilling champagne, ever on the brink of an all-consuming psychosis. In a more lucid moment, she announces a toast to “roses and nuclear weapons!” before sinking further into the depths of her self-constructed armour of dreams and unreality. The violent denouement and final revelations of Mercury Fur are unflinchingly bleak. Elliot must grapple with a meat-hook and his own humanity.
The violent action occurs mainly off-stage, in the style of Greek tragedy, which in this production did come across as slightly messy. The entrances and exits were not as well blocked as they could have been. The show was stronger towards the beginning when building up the character relationships; as the narrative veers into overdrive, the production lost its assurance and control at times. However, the company will undoubtedly increase in confidence and finesse as the run continues. This production left me very close to the shell-shock that the play ought to produce, but did not quite hit the mark of controlled insanity that the play requires.