Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake to earth your chains like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote his poem The Mask of Anarchy in 1819. It was his response to the Peterloo Massacre. The event was a meeting in St Peter’s Field in Manchester; attended by around 60,000 working people. They were there to hear a speech on parliamentary reform by Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt. Such meetings were as a threat to the establishment and the monarchy; the speakers and attendees were viewed with suspicion by the authorities. As Orator Hunt began to make his speech, the armed cavalry and yeomanry were sent in to disperse the crowd. They rode into the throng with sabres drawn: hacking and slashing as they went. As one veteran of Waterloo described (after being wounded in the attack) ‘At Waterloo it was man to man: there, it was bloody murder.’ 15 people were killed and many hundreds injured. It became known as ‘The Peterloo Massacre.’
Pat Richards and his cast of fourteen performers devised this wonderful production as an ensemble piece of physical theatre; incorporating a complete recitation of all 91 verses of the poem. Pat Richards took the role of a kind of ‘orator’ himself, behind a lectern: reading contemporary letters and news reports. Beginning with Lord Byron’s maiden speech to the House of Lords, the performance took place in one act, in the upstairs space of the Theatre. The seating was arranged in a U shape; with the performance area in front of a set of steps. The space was utilised effectively – especially the very visual sections of the poem: the attack on the crowd by the soldiers was re-enacted in mime; those playing the soldiers spoke the words ‘hack and slash and maim and kill’ – their victims silently sank to the ground.
Reminiscent of a Greek chorus, the Cast would often recite in unison, or in groups of three or four voices. During the sections of the poem where individuals speak, a single performer would take those lines. The ensemble was refreshingly diverse in age and ethnicity. In the Q&A afterwards, many of them said it was ‘the most challenging performance they had ever done’. It was very well received and the audience enjoyed being able to have a conversation with the cast and director afterwards. All shows were sold out: maybe there should be another, longer, run?
The Mask of Anarchy was performed at The Lace Market Theatre on Saturday 5 October