Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Maxine Peake performs the Masque of Anarchy

This year’s Manchester International Festival feels somehow genuinely exciting and energising, full of interesting ideas about how art (in its broadest definition) can be challenging and innovative, but also approachable and accessible.

The thoroughly ‘joined-up’ scheduling around Nikhil Chopra’s 65-hour performance/installation was a great example. While Chopra’s ‘Coal on Cotton’ was going on in a tent at the back of the gallery, his charcoal sketch of the Manchester skyline slowly expanding across one wall and his various personae providing a focus of attention, the gallery took full advantage of the 24/7 event to put on a full programme, ranging from ‘Mumbai street food’ at midnight, a licensed bar till 4am, yoga lessons in the art galleries at 6am on a Sunday, and tours and educational events at more civilised hours.

Chopra’s work was also one of those during the festival which have been both international in scope and theme, but also firmly rooted in Manchester itself. We might have had Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov adorning the front of the Palace Theatre for The Old Woman, and The Machine has little to do with Manchester, but some of the highlights of the festival have shown how art that connects to and expands on its setting needn’t be parochial.

The best example, though, was tonight’s performance by Maxine Peake of the full length of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy. I’ve mentioned my love of this poem before, but I don’t think I ever expected to see the whole of it recited as a piece of thrilling, dramatic literary theatre.

Peake’s performance – one of 4 over 3 days; the last one is tomorrow/Sunday 14th – was spellbinding. The setting was the Albert Hall, a gorgeous Victorian Methodist hall which has been shuttered for 40 years and is now being renovated as a music venue by local chain Trof. It retains a full church organ and wonderful stained glass windows, and was made all the more superb as a setting by the rows of flickering church candles which lit the ‘stage’.

To the slowly rising sound effects of a crowd and of the organ itself, Peake appeared in a flowing which gown, looking ghostly and iconic, suitably pre-Raphaelite against the dark wood and brass of the organ and the religious overtones of this former place of worship. Despite the ethereal look, Peake has a strong voice which was perfect for the poem, by turns making it dark and oppressive or ringing and inspirational. It was also great to see poetry being read in a strong, clear Northern accent, rather than conventional southern RADA tones.

The Albert Hall is on Peter Street, the site, of course, of Peter’s Fields and the Peterloo Massacre. So whilst on one level this was a beautifully-staged example of the way that literature can work on a large and public scale, it was also highly resonant. Shelley wrote this poem in protest at the British state’s slaughter of protesters at Peterloo, and in the current atmosphere of austerity imposed by millionaire politicians and attacks on civil liberties, to bring the poem back to its origin was politically as well as aesthetically powerful.

And just on the level of art, it’s brilliant to see an audience of hundreds drawn to poetry performed at 11 o’clock on a Saturday night. Even with a big name like Peake, this isn’t an obvious piece of scheduling, and it’s exciting to see that the risk paid off. Let’s hope it opens up space for more such creative art in Manchester in the future.

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