Albert Hall, Manchester
Directed by Sarah Frankcom
Until 14th July
Photo: Kevin Cummins
Closed to the public since 1969, Manchester’s Albert Hall is a superb venue for this staging of Shelley’s epic political poem ‘The Masque Of Anarchy’. A cavernous interior with a huge organ dominating the space created a quasi religious atmosphere – part cathedral, part football stadium. The relatively small stage area was mainly lit by candles, perfectly setting the scene for an impassioned battle cry for revolution from the lone performer, Maxine Peake. Rapturous applause greeted the diminutive figure of the actress as she made her way onto the stage clad in a simple white dress. Shelley’s poem was written in response to the events of Peterloo, the 1819 massacre of over a dozen innocent protestors by armed cavalry, which happened just yards away from the Albert Hall itself. Part of the Manchester International Festival, and in collaboration with The Royal Exchange, this was theatre at its simplest and most effective best; a single orator addressing a reverential audience with a call to arms for the oppressed and underrepresented people of England. Although some of the poetry could be hard to follow, and many of the names railed against are meaningless to everyone except the Peterloo scholar, this was timeless and highly relevant to today’s age of austerity. Fat cats are lampooned, along with the legal profession, the rich, the politicians, and the militia. Sarah Frankcom’s direction was simple – just let the performer speak; directly, forcefully, and supported by a subtle musical score (by Peter Rice and Alex Baranowski). The performance lasted around 40 minutes; testament to Ms Peake’s skill and stamina as her voice hardly faltered through verse after verse of dramatic, tense, angry, and at times tearful poetry. She had a vulnerable quality, with her slender frame, angular face, and often trembling hands. But she wears her heart on her sleeve, and is the perfect actress for this production. Maxine Peake makes it personal, and that makes it effective and jaw-droppingly heartfelt. Stepping down from the stage at the end of the performance, she carried a small candle as she made her way through the standing audience, and disappeared from view. One soul among many.
This review first published by www.thepublicreviews.com