Maxine Peake, Shelley's The Masque of Anarchy, Manchester, 2013
As I started to write this I realised I had absent-mindedly typed The Masque of Energy - an apt Freudian slip after this fiery performance surged through the huge Manchester International Festival audiences who packed the sweltering, unused-for-40-years hall.
Peake, one of the finest actors of her generation and following the traditions of an avowedly socialist family, poured her heart into four solo recitals (one with wonderfully expressive BSL signing) of Shelley’s furious response to the Peterloo Massacre which took place just yards from the Albert Hall in August 1819. Then the masses of people who gathered peacefully to hear speakers call for a fairer society were trampled and many killed by local militia with horses and sabres.
The word recital hardly does Peake or the poem justice. Her passionate delivery, directed by Sarah Frankcom, of the 91-verse epic (possibly the greatest political poem written – discuss) was so moving, so intense, so indignant and still so relevant today with its call for non-violent protest to demand justice, fairness and proper representation for the poor and disenfranchised.
Peake, dressed in a plain white shift, stood in front of a huge bank of burning candles and as a doom-laden soundtrack by Peter Rice and Alex Baranowski faded, began to speak. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. For 40 minutes she moved very little, occasionally raising her hands which trembled with emotion, and just spoke from memory.
You could see people mouthing the bits they knew best:
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 :
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!’
and the repeated refrain
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number.
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many — they are few.
The setting could not have been bettered, and it is great news that the handsome and atmospheric Albert Hall is being renovated. A perfect place for a revolutionary poetry jam. The thunderous applause and cheers at the end were as much for the words as for the astonishing performance. As one man shouted to the crowds outside waiting to go in for the next performance: “Who said poetry’s dead?”
Shelley’s masterpiece blazed with indignation and anger which Peake, in her glorious Bolton accent, presented as a piece of history, reportage, political philosophy and a call to wake up to the society in which we live. The next day on Radio 4’s Today programme, the government was defending its benefit capping philosophy. What would Shelley have written about that, I wonder?