Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Masque of Anarchy @ Albert Hall, 13.07.13

The tradition of Mancunian dissent is a long and noble one (see Now Then Manchester Issue 3). At the heart of that tradition are the events of 16 August 1819 when thousands gathered on a site that was once the Free Trade Hall – and is now the rather more prosaically and uninspiringly named Radisson Blu Hotel – to hear orator Henry Hunt speak in favour of parliamentary reform. The meeting was broken up on the orders of the local magistrates and following the unprovoked cavalry charge 15 lay dead and over 600 wounded. The red plaque on the front of the once proud building bears testament to this.

The semi-refurbished Albert Hall on Peter Street, yards away from the original site of what rapidly became known as The Peterloo Massacre, is an inspired choice of venue for a performance of Shelley’s brilliant polemical poem. It was originally written in the white heat of anger once news of the carnage reached him in Italy and is now being brought to life as one of the highlights of the Manchester International Festival.

As you walk upstairs and into the faded baroque, gothic elegance of the old Methodist Hall, you wonder what John Wesley would have made of this, as founding father of temperate Methodism and a dissenter at heart and in whose name the upstairs chapel and public meeting place was built. Or Shelley, himself, permanently expelled from Oxford University eight years earlier for refusing to retract his essay ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. I think both would have been quietly proud of the meeting of the sacred and the profane for the performance of this secular masterpiece.

Maxine Peake takes the stage carrying a night light and places it in front of a thousand candles which form the main part of the stage lighting. Dressed in a plain white commoners’ dress, symbolic of the purity of the noble ideals of the day, she begins to address the audience. Part sermon and part call to arms, each perfectly enunciated word is delivered, intonation rising and falling with each verse. Even the oppressive heat and the fading light of a Friday evening in Manchester seen through the stained glass of the chapel play their part and as each verse is delivered a giant shadow is cast behind Peake, not just as the ghost of the 15 dead of Peterloo but as a glorious angel of protest watching over dissenters through the ages.

Everything about this event is perfect. The subject matter, the venue and location, the staging and lighting and above all the performance of Maxine Peake. If the oratory of Henry Hunt was to be this powerful and persuasive then it is no wonder the authorities of the day had reason to fear his influence.

The Masque of Anarchy. A love poem for the dispossessed.

Words: Robert Pegg.
Photography: Kevin Cummins.

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