Kay Dick, adapted by Maxine Peake, Sarah Frankcom and Imogen Knight
The John Rylands Research Institute and Library, Manchester
The Manchester International Festival (MIF) is an arts festival with a capital ‘A’. There is a tendency to favour works which are extreme or obscure. The attraction for the MIF of Kay Dick’s dystopian They: A Sequence of Unease is clear. Set in an alternate reality / near future in which mobs of philistines systematically roam the country destroying works of art and intimidating and indoctrinating artists to conform to their blinkered viewpoint.
The play is staged after hours in The John Rylands Research Institute and Library which, from an imposing neo-Gothic building, promotes research in the humanities and sciences mainly by way of a series of special collections of rare books, maps and visual collections. The library always promotes a sense of reverence, especially tonight when we are allowed to go in through the grand ‘old’ entrance rather than the modern steel and glass gift shop.
The performance is staged in the Reading Room in which books are stored behind protective glass. The audience is seated either side of a runway with some patrons standing in the gallery, although it is not clear if the latter are VIPs or in the cheap seats. Having such an atmospheric setting, one might expect the play will make use of the library, possibly to suggest a place of refuge for characters fleeing oppression or making a last stand, but no such effort is made.
The opening of the play is deceptive, to be honest alienating, giving the impression this is to be a simple reading, rather than a dramatisation, of the book. Maxine Peake enters in loose blue cotton uniform and socks without shoes, picks up a script and starts to read (presumably an abbreviation of) the novel. But she does so from a seated position and so is invisible to anyone not in the front row. Just as you’re starting to wonder if a refund might be in order, it becomes apparent the drama in the production is going to emerge gradually as Peake rises and becomes more animated.
This is not the only strange development in the play. Filmmaker Joseph Lynn appears thrusting a camera into Peake’s face. One assumes this is intended to give a focal point to her paranoia—demonstrating she really is under observation—and not a clumsy attempt to take promotional photographs.
The dramatisation of the novel is subtle. Initially, Peake uses simple vocal intonation—an over-cheery moving towards strident tone for someone trying to convince themselves if they do not resist the encroachment on their liberty and creativity they will be left alone. A list of the atrocities inflicted on artists becomes even more horrific by being recited in the neutral, detached, tones of an academic.
Subtly, the tension increases. A faint, high-pitched noise sets the nerves on edge even before it becomes a full, clanging siren. Peake dispenses with the script, which may have been a psychological device to shield the character against the full terror of her situation, and strides the stage in agitation. The confrontation between Peake and an intruder threatening her dog is so intense, it could have been taken out of a horror movie. It is unclear if Peake reaches a place of refuge or of indoctrination, or if there is any difference between them if the artists sheltered therein are unable to create.
Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, which has a similar theme of destroying literature, concludes with the characters defying the censorious authorities by memorising books and reciting them aloud. Peake’s heartbroken and desperate reciting of the names of the artists (and their works) lost in the purge is more ambiguous, as much a questioning if their efforts have been worthwhile as a tribute.
Having pushed Peake’s character to the limit, the play allows possible hope of salvation in a practical demonstration of artistic defiance—Melanie Wilson’s spiritual vocals echoing through the hushed venue.
An alienating opening is quickly forgotten in this intense and absorbing drama.
Reviewer: David Cunningham