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The Masque of Anarchy, Manchester International Festival

Published by: Caroline May on 16th Jul 2013 | View all blogs by Caroline May
maxine peake.jpg

The Peterloo Massacre, which took place in Manchester on 16 August 1819, was an iconic moment in the history of the emerging industrial working class.  About 60,000 protestors had marched to St Peter’s Fields demanding electoral reform when their peaceful meeting was charged by sabre-wielding mounted troops, resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injured, among them women and children.

The radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was living in Italy at the time, but was so incensed by reports in the English newspapers that he immediately responded with his 91-stanza ballad The Masque of Anarchy.

The Manchester International Festival decided to commemorate the Peterloo Massacre with a staged performance of the poem by Bolton-born actress Maxine Peake (whose screen appearances range from Shameless to Silk, and Criminal Justice to Dinnerladies). 

The venue was on Peter Street – practically the very spot where those terrible events took place.  While the ground floor and basement of the 100-year-old Albert Hall were recently an Irish pub, the Methodist chapel upstairs has lain closed for over four decades.  The newly discovered space is large and impressive, with a huge horseshoe balcony opposite the derelict organ and speaking platform, and rows of arched windows down either side.

The excitement surrounding this show had been mounting over the last week, particularly after word spread following early performances, so that by 9.30 on a hot July evening there was a long, animated queue snaking up Peter Street.  Inside the chapel the exceptional weather, combined with a lack of ventilation or air conditioning, was bringing the expectant audience to a pitch of frenzy, augmented by Peter Rice’s eerie sound design.  The organ console was surrounded by banks of candles, and Chris Davey’s lighting was so subtle that at first I thought the illumination came entirely from the candles and the setting sun.

When I told my editor I was taking a cushion he thought I was joking.  In fact I saw Peter Sellars’ production of The Michaelangelo Sonnets at the same venue last week and was prepared for the cramped wooden benches in the gallery.  The Masque of Anarchy had a huge crowd promenading in the stalls area too.  The atmosphere was electric – if the organisers were trying to achieve a Sealed-Knot style re-enactment of the original Peterloo meeting (before the massacre) then they certainly achieved it.  After minutes of unexplained delay some of the more truculent ticket holders began a slow hand-clap, which seemed entirely in keeping with the spirit of the thing.

Maxine Peake

At last Maxine Peake came on carrying a candle and dressed in a plain white cotton dress.  She immediately began an angry declamation of Shelley’s opening stanzas.  The poem is a bitter satire on the government and its ministers, variously embodied as Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy and Anarchy, as they rampage over the land and destroy the working people, grinding them underfoot in the best tyrannical tradition.

When the poem moved into its second phase there was a thrilling transition.  From being stock still, the actress began to pace the stage and address herself directly to the “adoring multitude” as if she were the speaker at a political rally.  The conversational tone was daring and lent the words an immediacy that belied the poem’s regimented structure.  I heard people saying afterwards that they’d read the piece but never understood it before, and small wonder after such a restrained yet powerful performance.

Sarah Frankcom’s production was utterly simple yet had a huge emotional impact.  The continuing relevance of Shelley’s poem means that Peterloo is still remembered, and not just in Manchester.
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1 Comment

  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 5 years ago
    Thanks, Caroline. A great review of a powerful historic piece.
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