MIF: The Masque of Anarchy Review by Emma

A pivotal moment in Manchester's history, you'll no doubt agree.

By Manchester's Finest | July 30th '13

Mancunians aren’t built for heat. We’re accustomed to brisk northerly winds and horizontal rain, that’s our weather. So it was no surprise that at least one audience member fainted in Peter Street’s humid Albert Hall on a Friday night while riding the countrywide heatwave.

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Or perhaps it wasn’t the heat at all. Maybe they were significantly moved by a beloved Manchester actor’s spellbindingly impressive rendition of an entire 91 verses penned by Percy Bysshe Shelley, regarding a subject that would touch the hearts of anybody who lives in or simply loves this city. Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy was written about a protest drawing attention to poverty woes and a lack of state help, which took place in August of 1819 at St Peter’s Field. It was a peaceful protest, despite its foundations lying in frustration and a call for parliamentary reform. Men, women and children put on their Sunday best and packed picnics to make a day of it. The response of magistrates to this calm display, however, was to send in armed cavalry to arrest the speakers and diffuse the crowd. Fifteen attendees were killed and hundreds more maimed in what became known as The Peterloo Massacre, an event that prompted a certain John Edward Taylor to publish the first edition of something that would eventually be called The Guardian.

A pivotal moment in Manchester’s history, you’ll no doubt agree. Shelley may not have witnessed the events of that fateful day but his emotive and rousing epic shows how affected he was by the news of it.

One of the world’s most important political poems, it visualises the massacre’s victims not raising a hand against their assailants, casting harsh light upon the shameful and bullying nature of the cavalry. It also offers glimmers of hope with inspiring lines such as this: ‘Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number, / Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you – / Ye are many — they are few’.

The Manchester darling who read these lines on that hot Friday night was Maxine Peake, of Shameless and Silk fame. Born in Bolton, raised in Westhoughton and educated in Salford where she now lives, she offers herself up as a spokesperson for those who lost their lives or were traumatised just minutes from the venue where we watched her. The venue itself, Manchester’s Albert Hall, lay dormant for forty years and its restoration is awe-inspiringly gorgeous. (If it’s not crammed with wedding bookings following its grand launch in February, I’ll eat my hat.) Renovating the Albert Hall comes at a time when life is being breathed an area of Manchester City Centre that for a number of years has been something of a recreational void, luring visitors only to the AMC cinema or the steps outside the Great Northern warehouse on a sunny day. Now a part of town home to exciting indies like Brewdog, All Star Lanes and the upcoming Lucha Libre and new Almost Famous, Trof’s takeover of the Albert Hall’s feeding and watering needs feels like a completion of the circle.

A one-woman show must be a daunting task even for an accomplished actor like Ms Peake, but it is one she gets her teeth into with great aplomb. Far from simply reciting Shelley’s lines, she lives them. Dressed in a simple white shift and stood before a backdrop of candles, she looks serene and angelic while her facial expressions, her limited but pointed movements and the vocal nuances she effortlessly carries leave the audience enraptured and choked.

She gets by with a little help from her friends – artistic director of The Royal Exchange Sarah Frankcom directs the show, adding weight to Manchester International Festival’s motto of ‘Made for Manchester, Shared with the World’. But perhaps the part of the performance that stays with us the most is the idea that, symbolised by one woman’s enchantment of a large audience, a single voice can influence many.