The Anvil: An Elegy for Peterloo

Locations throughout Manchester

The Anvil at MIF19 Credit: Manchester International Festival

Manchester International Festival 19 marks the 200-year anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre with a commission from Irish theatre company ANU. Fifteen different Peterloo-inspired performances took place in the city centre, in locations around the historic site, providing a patchwork response to the massacre and its connection to Manchester today.

Across the episodes I saw, there are clear connecting themes of power, justice and rights; the repeated line "is this who we are?" is a thread that runs through each one, questioning the audience.

Liberty, a powerful and intensely physical dance solo, depicts a struggle to gain and retain freedom. Performer Clinton Liberty moves from behind a large window inside Central Library to the pavement outside directly in front of his audience—the lack of music leads to a heightened awareness of his breathing and the impact of his regular falls to the floor.

Resurrection, Sustenance and Communion are performed together inside the library’s council offices, a hybrid of frantic dance and site-specific theatre portraying a face-off between authority figures and victims of the system. Performers intermingle with the audience before the piece starts, blending in with the surroundings—one looks just like a member of the library security team, while another is highly convincing as a homeless man. Sound levels weren’t quite balanced for one of the pieces, however, as it was impossible to hear the performer’s dialogue over the drone-based music.

Prophet takes place around a parked taxi on Bootle Street, and begins as a comic monologue from driver Gaz. His charged encounter with food delivery cyclist Abeo leads to a duologue on the gig economy that manages to raise laughter and tears from the audience. It’s a scene that strikes a lot of contemporary notes, and is so moving thanks to the subtle performances of David Fawaz and Michael Glenn Murphy.

Clemency—my favourite episode—is similar in its topicality. A paramedic (Etta Fusi) monologues to the audience from the back of an ambulance in chatty, naturalistic style, asking questions about the future of the NHS and the moral nature of care; Fusi’s constant movement in and around the ambulance mirrors her character’s overtired talkativeness.

All of these episodes are well-performed, imaginative responses to the theme but logistical issues across the board let the experience down slightly, and certainly affected The Anvil’s physical and mental accessibility. Navigating the different timings and locations wasn’t easy—although the abundance of volunteers and signage made it easier—and the limited capacity of some venues wasn’t stated in the programme. The beginnings and ends of episodes were often not signalled to the audience either, meaning parts were missed.

It’s fantastic that MIF can bring free art to the people of Manchester, and in such a way that it can be unintentionally stumbled on and engaged with, but the rules of that engagement need to be made clearer.

Reviewer: Georgina Wells

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