Anarchy Lives and Breathes

For months now posters and banners have been appearing all over the city centre to promote the 4th Manchester International Festival which brings artists and performers from around the world together for 3 weeks worth (almost) of exciting, new and original events. I’d hoped to go along to something but feared it might all be a bit expensive and had put off making arrangements. Imagine my joy then when a friend unexpectedly offered me a free ticket. Hurrah! After a few drinks in Albert Square, off we went to the Albert Hall, properly opened for the night to host an incredibly short but powerful performance by the massively popular Maxine Peake (does anyone NOT love her?!). She was here to interpret one of the most radical pieces of poetry written in the English language to date: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy. As you probably know, this was Shelley’s reaction to “the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester” – the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 where hundreds of peaceful protestors were injured by government troops (Hussars and infantrymen) on horseback, 18 in total being killed.

Manchester town hall: not far from where the Massacre happened

The Albert Hall is usually shut. It’s been in a state of uncertainty for a number of years with the downstairs now and then used as a bar and the chapel upstairs in semi-disrepair, although it’s soon to reopen as a music hall. Repurposed by MIF as a pop-up performance space, this meant that Ms. Peake had an amazing place to orate from, emerging (it seemed out of nowhere) onto the candle-lit vestry where at moments she shook with a nervous adrenaline brought on most surely by the power of the words she was to share. Her tone and manner were those of an imploring, fiery and impassioned prophetess conjuring a vision for all who would listen. For a fleeting moment I wondered if her delivery was a little over the top. She quickly disabused me of that notion, or maybe she just made me forget. Like a muse summoned by Shelley himself she urged and implored us, still at first and then (in the poem’s final and longest movement) with outstretched hands. We (or at least the English) must stand fast against oppression; rise like lions after slumber against the ghastly and bloody pretenses of the corrupt authorities who hide from us their true nature.

peake orates

It’s blurry because she was all spectral and Joan of Arc like, okay?

As she came off stage to walk ghost-like through the crowd, at least half of the audience were left wondering how it could all have gone by so quickly. Ninety-one stanzas in barely over fifteen minutes! Leigh Hunt did not choose to publish this poem until after Shelley’s death, saying that he felt “the public were not yet sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the spirit with which this flaming robe of verse is written”. Whether or not that was his real reason I am not qualified to say but it makes me wonder how much more discerning we are these days? Personally speaking, I vaguely remember reading the poem as an undergrad, and probably even saw an original copy at the Keats-Shelley house over in Rome. But if I’m honest, it’s not one that really struck me. During this performance the poem not only came to life, it transcended its source. It almost felt like we were part of some great historical moment. Quite possibly we would be, if only we could be shaken out of our apathy.

Fans of Maxine can hear her talking about her part in the Festival here.


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7 responses to “Anarchy Lives and Breathes”

  1. Jemster says :

    Wow! What an amazing review! Are you sure you’re not secretly a reviewer for the arts section of a broadsheet? You missed your calling! Mr Gillies would be so proud. πŸ˜‰

    • musingfrommanchester says :

      Mr Gillies! Hahahaha. Thanks, Jen. Glad you liked it! Shame you couldn’t have seen the performance, it really was out of this world. X

      • Jemster says :

        Hehe. Well. You WERE one of his star pupils! Remember “perplexed, confused, puzzled, bamboozled, mystified…” Lmao. He was a one off wasn’t he?
        Did u c there was a Culture Show documentary on the other night about Maxine Peake, following her as she prepared for the show u went to see!

        • musingfrommanchester says :

          Haha. Are you trying to embarrass me? πŸ˜› Star pupil is definitely an exaggeration!! Funnily enough I think he ended up working at Strathclyde in the Faculty of Education round about the time I worked there. Never bumped into him though!

          Yes, saw the Culture Show. Very interesting! How times have changed….


          • Jemster says :

            Well it’s true!! I’m bigging you up! Lol. Credit level English, top grades whole way through…He used to get so exasperated with most of the class in first year when I had him! Yes! I remember seeing his profile on the Strathclyde uni page. Too bad u never bumped into him. Sure he would have been proud of u! X

  2. reyeyeyeyeyeyey says :

    I’ve been on the drink a few times with Maxine Peake but never realised who she was. I stopped having a TV ages ago. A friend of a friend was seeing her while I was back in Manc and someone had to tell me who she was. Hello from Berlin, btw!

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