Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Cannibals, Manchester Royal Exchange

Review: Cannibals, Manchester Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange is having its mojo moment. Or rather, its Mojo moment. Just as Jez Butterworth’s play was the Royal Court’s first main-stage debut since a certain angry young man wrote about an ironing board, 25 year-old Rory Mullarky is the youngest playwright ever staged in the Royal Exchange’s main house.

But while Cannibals, Mullarky’s first play, has a blazing sense of theatricality and vast ambition, I’m ultimately not quite sure what Mullarky’s driving at. He’s particularly good at flipping our understanding of what we’re watching, but too many inversions serves to tangle the whole.

It starts, for instance, with a boy and a girl: Lizavetta and her boyfriend Marek meeting up for a surreptitious date. He’s got a surprise for her, but the real shock is the soldier that bursts in and – bang – shoots Marek in the head, before forcing Lizavetta to torch the building.

This is, we assume, some dystopian – no, post-apocalyptic – Britain, ruled by militia. The country feels empty, like there are miles and miles between individuals, like resources are so limited that any contact would likely result in conflict. It looks, in other words, like the territory of so many zombie films; a Britain wrecked by global warming perhaps or one that has torn itself apart in civil war. This is a barren country where any small green shoot of kindness is blotted out by bullets. The survivors eat whatever they can scavenge: badger, dog, squirrel, men, women.

We follow Lizavetta from one encounter to the next, always running, always ducking for cover and knowing it won’t last. The rhythm is that of a Brecht epic, as Lizavetta seeks refuge wherever she can find it – with feral soldiers and artists in hermitude, with kindly landowners and the particularly vulnerable. Still they – whoever they are – catch her up.

What we don’t know is why the country is in this state. We know the government have taken food reserves, but that could be a symptom rather than a cause. It’s a fair old while before Mullarky offers us a real clue; in a warehouse hanging with bagged flesh, Lizavetta is sold. At first, you think she’ll be offered up for the eating, but, no, she’s sold on into sex slavery.

She wakes on a polythene-covered bed in a newly furnished bedroom. A man enters, speaking Russian and broken English from a dictionary: “Hi? Hi. Hi. I. Lov. You.” Aha, you think, Mullarky’s turned the tables. What if Britain were the undernourished, desperate nation in the currents of human trafficking and capital flow?

However, he then reveals that we’re seeing this new place through Lizavetta’s eyes. Her owner’s Russian is – in reality – English, but unintelligibly foreign to her ears. This is, to borrow a phrase, England. Lizavetta breaks out and the world she tumbles into is recognisably Manchester: hen parties, football fans and overflowing ASDA shelves. (Returning to the station, I saw a street entertainer represented onstage.)

What I don’t quite understand is if this is *actual* England, then where were we before? Actual Russia (or another unspecified Eastern European nation)? Or an imagined dystopian version of that? Or one drawn from history? (The impetus was a photo labelled ‘Cannibals near Pern’ taken in 1930.) It can’t be real, but then why present *actual* England as its opposition? But if it’s fictional, then is Mullarky going after our assumptions about other nations perceived as worse off? Perhaps, but we register it as dystopian fantasy rather than as one that we recognise, one that conforms to our prejudices, so that rather unravels. Maybe Mullarky’s just overplayed his hand, but without doing so, can he muster the same theatrical electricity? I’m not sure.

In spite of this, Mullarky’s play gets a barnstorming production from director Micheal Longhurst aided by a truly dynamic design from Chloe Lamford. The whole thing has the explosive energy of an assault. Scenes burst into the space like shellfire. Spuds fall like bombs and flames creep their way up hanging chains. There’s danger and vivacity here and it extends to the performances, not least Ony Uhiara’s steely, scared Lizavetta and Ricky Champ’s affronting and unapologetic performance as Josef the Fool.

Photograph: Jonathan Keenan

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