Mercury Fur, by Philip Ridley. Directed by Ben Packer, at Theatreworks St Kilda (September 2007).
Science Fiction (SF) and theatre may, on the surface, appear to share little with one another. There isn’t a more unlikely binary than nano-tech and the mundanity of the stage, surely? Yet this reductionist view obscures the role of both as loci of the unrestricted imagination, free to explore the dystopian nightmares of man and interrogate the ethical dimensions locked within unreckoned circumstances; and the best of SF concerns itself not so much with alien entities, dark-matter or spaceships, but with a rigorous investigation of what it is to be human, even in the face of a world turned inside out.
The question is pertinent to Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur, a dense and provocative work that has been rendered with laser-like intensity by little death productions at Theatreworks. We are shown an unspecified future – not a future so remote as to be unrecognisable, but rather one where the anchors of history have so recently been cut adrift that there is an unsettling sense of proximity to the horrors presented to us. From the confines of an abandoned building complex, we learn gradually of a London that has been ravaged by war launched for unknown reasons by unrevealed perpetrators. Amidst the utter decay, a Hobbesian dynamic is inexorably destroying what the bombs can not – all that is good in the human species – and in shades of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, a mysterious drug is reformatting the brains of unwitting citizens lured by the promise of escape from the self-destructing world, raising the spectre of psychopharmacological warfare.
Elliot (Luke Mullins), a street-peddler of the butterfly-shaped psychoactives, and his brother Darren (Xavier Samuel), survive as best they know how amidst a shattered London, organising venues for ‘parties’ on behalf of Papa Spinx (Gareth Ellis), a figure of fear and awe among the denizens of this fractuous underworld. These parties, however, are not cause for celebration, but orgies of violent self-gratification whose horror is available for a premium to those with the means to pay. From within the confines of the abandoned warehouse Elliot and Darren have secured for their latest party, the dimensions of Hell can be readily observed. Ridley has conjured a world where the briefest flash of memory from the ‘before’ can provoke a quasi-religious yearning for that paradise lost, where all the known ballast of identity, sexuality, and family has leaked away, and where oblivion is the finest we may hope for.
It is bleak; it is unremitting: but the more oppressive things become, the more shockingly valuable the streaks of altruism and love are when they appear. The ensemble cast excel – Luke Mullins’ pragmatism belies how deeply disturbing it is to carry the memory of a broken world; Xavier Samuel captures the wide-eyed naivete, tenderness and bluster of a younger brother; Gareth Ellis as Papa Spinx is almost over-the-top but all the more frightening for it, while Russ Pirie displays a genuine care and a defusing humour as Lola. Fiona Macys creates an otherworldy figure of the blind Duchess, and Aaron Orzech is effective and disarming as the innocent and hapless Naz. As the salivating consumer offered the chance of a unique experience, Paul Ashcroft is frighteningly truthful in his representation of our baser motivations.
Ben Packer and designer Adam Gardnir have crafted a cunningly intimate space from the inner expanses of Theatreworks, one that permits no escape of the attention. We are given ring-side seats to the inner apocalypse,to a posthuman spectacle that captures Theodore Sturgeon and Howard Barker and places them together in a cage of our own making. Lighting designer Danny Pettingill has a bank of light-bulbs against upstage centre provide a surreal illumination of the events, evoking everything from the setting sun to the terror-alert levels of our contemporary nightmare. The production values on the whole are wonderfully realised – almost invisible, as it were, till at last the creeping soundscape from Kelly Ryall envelopes you in the terrifying orchestration of the finale. Mercury Fur is a savage and uncompromising work that Packer has handled with integrity and vision, and could hope for no better Australian premiere than that rendered to us by little death productions.