Theatre Review: The Masque of Anarchy, Manchester Festival

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One of the little touches of genius about this year’s Manchester International Festival has been the imaginative choice of venues with which the artistic director Alex Poots has given extra resonance to the works being staged. Perhaps the best example of this was Maxine Peake’s bravura performance of The Masque of Anarchy, the long poem which Percy Byshe Shelley wrote in indignation against the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

The venue is a building best known to Mancunians as Brannigan’s late-night drinking factory. But in 1910 when it was built it was – ironically, given the sheer quantities of alcohol swilled there in recent years – a teetotal Methodist meeting hall. The upstairs hall, where Peake performed, which has not been used since 1969, is a cavernous breath-taking galleried room with a 40-foot wooden organ façade and tiers of candlelit benches where once a massive Methodist choir would have sat.

But in Methodism, then as now, it was not the singing of the choir which was central but that of the assembly of the hundreds of people who would have thronged the space where similar numbers stood last week to watch the woman who has fast become one of the nation’s favourite actresses.

Peterloo was named in mock echo of Waterloo where the hussars of the British Army had just scored a great victory over the forces of Napoleon. Only this time the sabre-wielding cavalry were sent not upon a foreign foe but on 60,000 unarmed working men, women and children who had gathered on Peter’s field in Manchester to protest against wage cuts in the cotton mills which belched such smoke into the air above the city that horrified visitors reported the sky was permanently black.  More than 600 were injured, and 15 killed, in Britain’s first major protest by a unionised industrial workforce.

For all that Marxism was associated with trade unionism by its opponents, Methodism had as great an influence. Shelley is thought of as a Romantic poet but The Masque of Anarchy is politics of the highest-octane outrage. 

Dressed in a plain white shift, her blonde-hair neatly bobbed as if to be free of catching in the furious looms of the mill, Maxine Peake, in a prodigious act of memory, delivered a 50-minute rendition of Shelley’s rhetorical rhapsody with such pace and passion that it felt not like a performance so much as being present at a piece of history. Yet with the beauty and ire of an avenging angel she was not recalling the past so much as speaking to a present in which her words would have echoed as aptly now in Tahrir Square.

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