Albert Hall, Manchester

Maxine Peake
Maxine Peake
© Kevin Cummins

The Masque of Anarchy is Shelley's epic poem commemorating The 1819 Peterloo Massacre. Workers, holding a peaceful meeting supporting the extension of democracy, were attacked by armed soldiers causing hundreds of injuries and over a dozen deaths.

A performance of this poem is now staged as part of The Manchester International Festival in the chapel of a former Methodist meeting hall located in the area where the massacre occurred.

The atmosphere in the Albert Hall reflects its past. Designer Amanda Stoodley takes a reverential approach covering the rear of the chapel alter with flickering candles.

Likewise, director Sarah Frankcom creates the mood of a particularly intense public meeting. The packed audience stand in rapt anticipation waiting for the speaker to arrive. The organ inspired music of Peter Rice and Alex Baranowski adds an ominous feel building to a crescendo supplemented by subtly growing drums.

This is so effective that by the time sole performer Maxine Peake takes the stage- dressed in a simple white shift and carrying a single candle- she gets a rock star's reception.

The opening half of Shelly's poem is the hardest for a modern audience to comprehend at a public recital rather than a private read. Shelly's decision to name those he considered guilty of causing the massacre was courageous in his day but has less meaning now when we don't recognise the people involved.

The sweltering heat in the venue makes it hard to concentrate on the abstract tale of the anarchic forces of the ruling class confronting the growth of Hope.

Maxine Peake is an invaluable guide to the opening of the poem. She takes a reserved approach with minimal physical movements preferring to let the power of the poem be expressed through Shelley's verse but using discrete vocal changes to help audience comprehension. Rather than a declamatory tone she speaks in a subtle northern accent.

The more politically direct second half of the poem generates a dramatic change of approach. Peake becomes an orator - stepping forward and engaging direct with the audience in a fiery passionate speech.

It is a style worn thin by gobshite politicians but there is no mistaking the sincerity of Peake's presentation or its impact. While Peake does not play down the horror of the injustice described in the poem she chooses to emphasise the glimmers of hope so that the conclusion of the evening is inspirational rather than bleak.

Frankcom directs the conclusion with fine style. Chris Davey's lighting gradually darkens from the stage up so that shadows threaten to consume the speaker. There is the distinct feeling that for Peake - the poem and its continuing relevance are more important than her performance.

Rather than distract from its impact, and despite strong audience appreciation, she does not take a bow but leaves the stage humbly.

- Dave Cunningham