The Masque of Anarchy

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Manchester International Festival
Albert Hall, Manchester

Maxine Peake in The Masque of Anarchy Credit: Kevin Cummins

Peterloo seems to have become an event to commemorate this summer; it was a major part of Library Theatre Company's site-specific Manchester Sound: The Massacre, which closed last weekend, and is the subject of Shelley's poem, here staged by director Sarah Frankcom of the Royal Exchange Theatre and actor Maxine Peake for MIF.

Peterloo was the nickname, named after the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier, of a peaceful demonstration to demand universal male sufferage on St Peter's Fields in Manchester (not at "Peterloo" as Peake says at the start) in 1819, which ended in a bloodbath as the authorities descended on the unarmed protestors with sabres.

The star of this production has got to be the venue. Above what used to be Brannigan's bar, Albert Hall was built as a Methodist meeting hall a little over a century ago but has been closed to the public since 1969.

That description makes it sound like a small hall, but this is a full-sized church—bigger than most churches I have been in—with huge stained-glass windows down both sides, a seated, curved balcony and a full-sized church organ behind the preacher's platform. I can't believe I used to drink in the bar below without ever knowing that this incredible space existed above me.

For this production, the balcony is seated but the lower region is all-standing like an Elizabethan outdoor theatre. The pipes from the organ are surrounded by lit candles, and Maxine Peake stands before them in a flimsy white dress and recites Shelley's poem.

Basically, that's all there is to it: a poetry recital. Peake performs impressively and emotionally for this half-hour piece, but there is no attempt to stage or illustrate the text in any way other than some atmospheric music from Peter Rice and Alex Baranowski and lighting from Chris Davey.

For anyone who already knows the poem, this powerful recital would be illustration enough, but for the uninitiated the works of the Romantic poets (at least for me) require more careful study than is possible at the speed of a performance to really understand what they are about. Frankcom, Peake and Festival director Alex Poots all say in the programme that the poem still has relevance to us today about the right to protest, but I didn't feel any more enlghtened after the performance and couldn't really tell you what it was all about.

So probably a good one for Shelley fans to see, definitely one for fans of hidden Manchester architecture, but unlikely to create any new enthusiasts of Romantic poetry or enlghten anyone looking for information about Peterloo.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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