Jeremiah

Words by Jack Dean, music by Jack Dean and Umayr Shaffi
Arts Centre Washington

Jeremiah tells the story of Jeremiah Brandreth, an out of work stocking maker from Nottinghamshire who led the Luddites’ final act, the Pentrich Rising, and was, in 1817, the last man to be beheaded (posthumously, after he had been hanged) in the history of Britain.

It’s hip-hop gig theatre, a performance by writer and co-composer Jack Dean, a mixture of rap and performance poetry with songs, accompanied by what sounds like a sampled backing track which supplements live music from a cello, guitar and violin. Dean and his musicians wear a basic early nineteenth century lower-class costume. Captioning (every spoken and sung word) and video projection fill the back wall of the stage.

It’s political theatre, focusing on the plight of the poor and their oppression by the government of the day in the person of the Home Secretary, Viscount Sidmouth, who cracked down on all attempts at democratic reform during his ten-year period of office and on his use of spies to undermine the democratic movements.

As well as Brandreth’s whole life story from childhood to death, the Pentrich Rising and the spies, Dean also covers the Napoleonic Wars and the general radical unrest and introduces Shelley and his idealistic political stance, as well as Byron speaking in the House of Lords.

In fact, the piece tries to cover too much and this weakens the power of the political message. Dean tries to cram as much into it as possible, making it roughly two hours long including an interval. Its five acts are followed by an epilogue in which, accompanied by a kind of musical continuo, the fate of every one of Brandreth’s family and almost every radical mentioned is projected onto the back wall, as well as details of the deaths of Shelley and Byron (along with his fight for Greek independence) and Peterloo, all of which happened after Brandreth’s death.

The hip-hop style of music works well here, even with the period costumes, for its tone and rawness echo the desperate situation of the poor in the society in which it is set, but what does jar a little is some of the language: “motherfucker” and “lefty” and many other words used are firmly 20th / 21st century and clash with the period costume. Without that costuming—in other words, if it had been obviously a modern telling of the story—there would have been nothing to jar, no sense of disconnection.

A tighter focus and the elimination of anything irrelevant to the Luddite / Pentrich story would have given the piece and its (very timely) message much more power.

And, after so long telling the story of the poor of early 19th century Britain struggling for their livelihood and being condemned to misery in both life and death, to make a curtain speech promoting your merchandise does tend to undermine the political impact.

(Touring to Bristol, Launceston, Truro, York and Corsham.)

Reviewer: Peter Lathan