There is a Light That Never Goes Out: Scenes from the Luddite Rebellion
James Yeatman and Lauren Mooney
Royal Exchange Theatre and Kandinsky
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
The final production of the Royal Exchange's current season is very much a piece of local history that takes in the region's radical political past and its crucial part in kickstarting the Industrial Revolution, and part of it even takes place in the room in which this play is being performed.
Rather than jumping on the Peterloo bicentennial bandwagon, James Yeatman and Lauren Mooney of Kandinsky have looked back a few more years to 1812 and the attacks by weavers on the factory machines that were gradually destroying their livelihoods under the probably mythical figure of General Ned Ludd. Now, the word 'luddite' is used to refer to someone who wilfully avoids or even campaigns against new advances in technology due solely to a resistance to change, but the original Luddites were attempting to slow the spread of something that was literally starving them to death as the new automated factory looms could do the work of hundreds of skilled weavers.
The creators, as they state in the programme, work using a devising process (in which the whole piece is created during rehearsals with the actors rather than from a prewritten script) and this show exhibits a few of the common traits of this kind of theatre: it is a collage of readings from various historical sources and dialogue scenes, the plot is loose enough to be able to jump between styles and stories and the design, from Naomi Kuyck-Cohen and Joshua Gadsby, is sparse and simple with all of the mechanics of performance on show—the rail of costumes, a rack of amps in the corner, sound and light operators brought onto stage from the gallery, actors visibly standing around when not in a scene.
There are some continuing stories as we jump between groups of characters and they all tie in nicely with one another, but there is nothing particularly radical or unexpected going on dramatically. There is the family where the daughter (Katie West) of the old weaver (David Crellin) goes against her father's wishes and gets a job in the new factory as he isn't earning enough to put food on the table. The 'nice' factory owner (Daniel Millar) wants to take credit for calling the doctor when one of his workers (Nisa Cole) is injured in one of his machines but still insists he has to dock her wages as she can't work as quickly now. One of the rebels (Reuben Johnson) is actually spying for local military leader Colonel Fletcher (Amelda Brown) to earn some money on the side, but ends up more militant than the rebels.
So there's nothing unusual or that we haven't seen before, albeit not about these events, in plays about factory and mill workers over the last 200 years, often as part of a more detailed plot that gives more insight into the characters and their motivations. What might seem a bit more unusual is the style, which doesn't use regency costumes or modes of speech; instead, the characters dress in modern street clothes or the green tabards of factory workers and speak as people of their age and class would speak today. This perhaps breaks down some of the barriers of history to make the concerns of these characters feel more real and human to us.
The stage is dominated by a shiny red ramp—I'm not sure if it has any significance other than to provide different levels for the action—and there is some ingenious use of dummy microphones combined with recorded sound effects which I can't find words to describe in a way that reflects how effective it is, but that level of inventiveness isn't carried throughout the piece. The character of Ned Ludd is kept mythical by having him played by different people—at the time, hundreds of letters were sent to newspapers and mill owners apparently signed by Ludd but sent by different people—dressed in a trench coat and hat to look like Dick Tracy with their voices artificially deepened using a mic.
It's an enjoyable piece of theatre with some surprising humour (especially from Johnson and Millar) but I'm not sure I learned much new about the historical events, the stories are interesting but not particularly developed or original and even the modern dress doesn't really stop it from feeling like a story from two centuries ago with little relevance to us now. The programme hints a little at a link with modern politics, but there's nothing obvious in the piece itself.
However it's well performed and has local relevance that makes it a fitting prelude to the tributes to the victims of Peterloo, a similar clash between protestors and the authorities that ended violently just a few years later.
Reviewer: David Chadderton