They with Maxine Peake – Manchester International Festival review

Art becomes an offence in this adaptation of a 1977 tale

Maxine Peake and Joseph Lynn, © Tristram Kenton

Manchester’s John Rylands Library is not a theatre. And yet. There’s an imposing grandness to its neo-Gothic architecture with its stone columns and arches. The closeness and stillness in the air makes words hang, float and drift.

Maxine Peake arrives into it like a phantom. She coasts impassively down the stage’s narrow corridor, flanked on either side by audience, to a chair where she intones the story she’s here to share: They by Kay Dick. A book that’s undergone its own disappearing and reappearing act, recently republished after going out of print for decades from 1977.

The start of Peake’s dramatic reading is steady and contained. The story itself builds from relatively untroubling, ordinary beginnings in a neighbourhood of coastal Sussex. The signs that this is actually a dystopian Britain creep out, sparked by the discovery of a dead dog. The trail of papers she reads from that tumble out of her hand gradually accumulate like all the artists violently punished – some whose tongues are cut out, others made blind or deaf – for their creativity.

The disciplinarian regime is palpable in her patrician delivery which clips every sound into crisp, hard edges. There’s an equal brittleness to her performance, her body tending to stay straight and stiff while her face twitches and squirms. However, she gives less differentiation to all the other characters’ voices. It conveys the mass numbing and depersonalisation of a population by the authoritarian rule, and adds an authenticity to the account, as though a survivor trying to piece together a horrific event. But it also becomes a blurry stream of consciousness that’s hard to follow.

Peake is most effective at synthesising the authority’s erasure of identity, with a baseline neutral tone. Her face carries a narcotised, dead-eyed blankness, aloof and delirious, gripped by a wide-eyed rictus of alarm and terror. Melanie Wilson’s sound design amplifies the echoes of the space’s natural acoustics to also suggest a hollowing out. The imagery of Dick’s prose is cleverly undercut: the light stays white throughout Peake’s reveries about paint on canvases – any colour bleached out.

However, she jolts between extremes of pitch, while Sarah Frankcom’s production is overly earnest in instilling ominous tension and deliver the novel’s subtitle: ‘A sequence of unease’. Peake goes heavy on the dramatic pauses and the looks into the middle distance. It veers from under- to over-fired rather than making the on-the-run thriller plot feel like it’s closing in.