THIS was an absolute triumph.
It was the best of what Manchester International Festival can deliver. A pin-sharp performance, an unusual and memorable venue, drama in lighting and sound, intelligence and verve, a one-off.
The Masque of Anarchy felt like a proper event, it will live long in my memory.
It remains a powerhouse poem with a rock anthem of a lyric, better spoken out loud than read quietly. Peake delivered all the best qualities of the poem triumphantly
Then again, I suppose I was the perfect audience.
I conduct Peterloo Massacre walks and tours, tracing routes around Albert Hall where Maxine Peake triumphed on Friday night.
Albert Hall sits yards from where on Monday 16 August, 1819, up to 80,000 ordinary people campaigning for representation in Parliament and the vote, gathered to make their voice heard. It was a hot day.
Magistrates, erroneously afraid of riots, looting and the libertarian ideas of the protesters, called in the troops. It was the mounted militia that turned up first, amateur soldiers, probably drunk. They became separated and in panic and in hatred of the reform movement started lashing out with their sabres.
Fifteen people died, hundreds were injured, many losing limbs, and a slow-burning fire was lit in the hearts and minds of the British. Peterloo became a byword for repression on the road to democracy. The name, by the way, was an amalgam of the location, St Peter's Fields, and a pun on the battle of Waterloo, that had taken place four years before.
The leader of the protestors was a man called Henry Hunt. By his side on the hustings of Peterloo was the President of the Manchester Female Reform Society, Mary Fildes. She like all the women was dressed in white, the colour of peace.
Peake as will-o-the-wispMaxine Peake fittingly dressed in white for this brief performance - it was under half an hour. In the faded grandeur of Albert Hall, she appeared first as a will-o-the-wisp, back lit by candles, on a mighty stage.
But as soon as she began, her voice ringing clear and resonant through every word, she magnified and grew, until she dominated the space. Peake was astonishing, a definition of tour de force, in control of both the louder and quieter moments, demanding attention.
She was delivering the 91 verse Masque of Anarchy by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Percy Bysshe ShelleyShelley, one of the so-called 'Romantic Poets' along with Byron, Keats and Wordsworth, wrote the poem in Italy when he heard the news of the Peterloo Massacre from Manchester. Like many of the progressive minds of his generation, Shelley was beguiled by the idea of liberty contained in the French Revolution of 1789, if appalled by the Reign of Terror and the bloody guillotine that soon followed.
The Masque of Anarchy is a young man's call to arms addressed to his own country, an energetic and lively shout for freedom. It has its weaker moments but remains a powerhouse poem with a rock anthem of a lyric, better spoken out loud than read quietly.
Peake delivered all the best qualities of the poem triumphantly.
I wish it were still on at this MIF because I would glady listen to it again. And another time after that.
The Masque of Anarchy, by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The first nine verses of the Masque of Anarchy referring to the government and the unpopular monarchy give a good idea of the tone of the poem.
As I lay asleep in Italy
|There came a voice from over the Sea,|
|And with great power it forth led me|
|To walk in the visions of Poesy.|
|I met Murder on the way—|
|He had a mask like Castlereagh—|
|Very smooth he looked, yet grim ;|
|Seven blood-hounds followed him :|
|All were fat ; and well they might|
|Be in admirable plight,|
|For one by one, and two by two,|
|He tossed them human hearts to chew|
|Which from his wide cloak he drew.|
|Next came Fraud, and he had on,|
|Like Lord Eldon, an ermined gown ;|
|His big tears, for he wept well,|
|Turned to mill-stones as they fell.|
|And the little children, who|
|Round his feet played to and fro,|
|Thinking every tear a gem,|
|Had their brains knocked out by them.|
|Clothed with the Bible, as with light,|
|And the shadows of the night,|
|Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy|
|On a crocodile rode by.|
|And many more Destructions played|
|In this ghastly masquerade,|
|All disguised, even to the eyes,|
|Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, and spies.|
|Last came Anarchy : he rode|
|On a white horse, splashed with blood ;|
|He was pale even to the lips,|
|Like Death in the Apocalypse.|
|And he wore a kingly crown ;|
|And in his grasp a sceptre shone ;|
|On his brow this mark I saw—|
|‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’|
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