There is a light that never goes out

“When it shall be said in any country in the world my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want; the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of its happiness: When these things can be said, there may that country boast its Constitution and its Government” ― Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

Last Saturday we went over to Manchester to see a matinee performance of the current play at The Royal Exchange. The theme of There is a light that never goes out : scenes from the Luddite rebellion is given away in the title – it’s about the Luddites, based on events in Westhoughton (only a few miles from where I’m writing this) and Manchester in 1812.

Luddite is used as a derogative term these days – for people seemingly opposed to progress. But in the early 19th century progress and new technology was putting people out of work, driving down living standards and forcing men, women and children into working long hours at backbreaking work in the new factories and mills. Ordinary working people were powerless – they didn’t have the vote – so the only way they had to strike back was with violence directed at the source of their oppression – the factories and the machinery they contained.

The play is based on factual material – newspaper articles, police reports and eyewitness accounts – studied by the authors and cast. So the story is told from the perspective of the participants – the workers themselves and, also, one of the factory owners who agitated for reform – for the employers but certainly not the workers.

It’s a modern production so isn’t a straight story told scene by scene like a historical drama on TV or in the cinema. The cast take several roles, costumes and props are minimal and music and lighting are used to create the atmosphere and the noise of the factory. The actors speak the words of the workers, but there’s improvisation too using modern language and slang.

The Royal Exchange itself (the building, that is) also features in the play – a protest meeting held there on 8 April 1812, turned into a riot.

Ultimately the Luddites were defeated and they were viciously suppressed by a brutal state. Their cause was, essentially hopeless, as it was impossible for them to stop the march of technology. However, in Manchester and the nearby towns, the spark of rebellion wasn’t extinguished. And neither was the brutality of the state. Only 7 years later, on Monday 16 August 1819, a mass meeting of workers demanding Parliamentary reform, held on Peters Field in Manchester was attacked by cavalry of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry with sabres drawn. 18 people were killed and 400–700 were injured. A massacre that became known as Peterloo. Another defeat for the workers, but struggles continued and eventually their demands were realised. But it took a long time and wasn’t achieved without many other struggles. It wasn’t given to us on a plate.

There’s a lot of events taking place in Manchester at the moment commemorating Peterloo – the play is part of that, I guess in that it celebrates Manchester radicalism. Before the play we called into Manchester City Art Gallery and had a look round the exhibition Get Together and Get Things Done which explores

with people the wider theme of the crowd through international historic and contemporary art and group activity, looking at how an art gallery can be shaped by the crowds that use them.

One of the photographs on display was of a Chartist rally on Kennington Common London in 1848 when people were still campaigning for the more or less the same demands being advocated at Peterloo, 29 years later.

I was struck by this print, produced by L’Atelier Populaire during the 1968 events in Paris.

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Today we are faced with a similar problem as in the 19th Century – the rampant charge of new technology. Is history repeating itself? How will people, and governments, respond?

The Industrial Revolution was the original Northern Powerhouse, but not everyone bought into the future it promised. Angry workers smashed the new machines and were written off as enemies of progress. Their 19th-century complaint, that bosses were using technology as an excuse to beat down the workers, resonates now more strongly than ever.

Royal Exchange website

The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe

Last week I was back down in London with work. I had a consultancy assignment on the Wednesday so traveled down Tuesday afternoon. Rather than spend the night in my budget hotel room I decided to see if I could get a ticket for the theatre. I’d never been to the reconstructed Globe on the South Bank and managed to get a seat for the production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Getting a seat was important for me. As a reconstruction of an Elizabethan theatre, most of the patrons have to stand in the area before the stage, just like the Elizabethan “groundlings”. But at my age I didn’t fancy standing for over 2 hours.

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The play is a comedy – a rather bawdy farce, in fact. The main character, Sir John Falstaff, was played by an actor from Salford, Pearce Quigley , who I’ve seen many times on TV and who played the father in Mike Leigh’s film, Peterloo.

The structure and layout of the Globe means that it’s easy for the actors to interact with the audience. And they certainly did during this play. I wouldn’t have liked to have been stood too close to the left hand of the stage last Tuesday!

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Although, being a too serious type of person (according to my family!) I usually would plumb for a tragedy rather than a comedy, but I enjoyed the production. The cast were very good, The production was light-hearted and there were plenty of laughs. Pearce Quigly was excellent in the role of Falstaff and his comic timing was pretty much perfect. For parts of the play I could have been watching Monty Python as Richard Katz, in his role as the French Doctor Caius, with a comical accent could quite easily have been mistaken for one of the French knights from Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

After the play, leaving the theatre, I had a good view over the City of London.

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It was a balmy evening so I walked back to my hotel, clocking up a few more miles towards my 1000 mile challenge target.

All in all a good evening and certainly better than sitting working or watcjing the TV in my hotel room

“The Duchess of Malfi” at the Swan Theatre

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On the Monday evening during my stay in Stratford I managed to get tickets for the RSC’s production of The Duchess of Malfi in the Swan Theatre. There were no performances of the current show in the main theatre (Macbeth, with Christopher Ecclestone) that week but I  wasn’t disappointed as I had an enjoyable evening along with an Australian friend who was over for the conference.

The Swan is, like the Globe on the Southbank in London, a recreation of an Elizabethan / Jacobean theatre. In this case it’s u-shaped with a “thrust stage” surrounded on 3 sides, with stalls and two galleries.

The play was is a Jacobean tragedy by English dramatist John Webster and was written in in 1612/13. The blurb on the RSC’s website summed up the plot

A defiant woman is destroyed by her corrupt brothers in this violent revenge tragedy, full of dark humour.

The production had some modern twists –  modern dress, gymnastic dancing and some modern songs and started with the lead actress, Joan Iyiola, dragging a large animal carcass on to the stage. It stayed there, but it’s significance only became apparent in the second half.

Joan Iyiola was a powerful and very sexy duchess and I thought that Nicolas Tennant as the self serving Bosola was also very good.

After the interval, occupants of the front rows, where the seats are below stage level, were given blankets to cover their clothing and shoes. The reason became apparent early in the second half when the carcass was cut and began to leak blood – symbolising the brutality of the story where the Duchess’ brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal, have their sister murdered for marrying outside her class

By the end of the play the whole stage was covered with blood. And being a Jacobean tragedy all of the major actors lay dead on the floor, drenched with the red liquid.

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Othello at the Abbey

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When working away from home and staying in a hotel for five nights, like this week, it’s good to get out of my hotel room. So on Tuesday I booked a ticket to see the latest production at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. The Abbey, which opened on 27 December 1904, styles itself the National Theatre of Ireland. It’s located in the Centre of Dublin on the north bank of the Liffey in Lower Abbey Street. Traffic during the evening is always busy in Dublin, especially along the Quays. But roadworks due to the building of the new extension to the Luas tramline required a diversion in congested traffic to reach the Irish Life car park I intended to use. So the journey was more unpleasant than usual.

It’s 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, and in celebration the Abbey’s latest production is one of his well known plays, Othello. Although I knew the general gist of the plot, it wasn’t a play I was particularly familiar with, so it was going into it with a relatively open mind. However, being a Tragedy there was a good bet that the main characters were going to end up dead.

As during previous visits to the Abbey, I enjoyed the evening. It was a modern dress production with the characters speaking in a variety of Irish twangs. Except for Othello, that is, who spoke in a distinctive West African accent. There were some strong performances, particularly Marty Rea as a sly Iago. He spoke in a Northern Irish accent and looked rather like a young Gerry Adams.

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I also enjoyed the performances by Karen Ardiff as Armelia and Gavin Fullam as Roderigo. Peter Macon was a powerful Othello, if a little bombastic, and Rebecca O’Mara was an attractive Desdemona.

Othello is brought down by the “green eyed monster”, his jealousy, engineered by Iago who was motivated, no doubt, by racism. I wasn’t entirely convinced by how easily he was able to manipulate Othello and induce his jealousy. I guess that’s a weakness of the plot, partly due to the inevitable time limitations, but I’m not sure that the production got this completely right.

Despite this reservation it was an enjoyable evening, and a much easier drive back to the Naas.

Husbands and Sons at the Royal Exchange

They say it’s grim up north, but it’s miserable in the East Midlands, at least that’s the picture D H Lawrence paints in the three plays that were performed simultaneously in the latest production by the Royal Exchange in Manchester.
Lawrence is best known for his novels such as Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley’s Lover set in the Nottinghamshire coalfields where he grew up. But he was also a playwright. The Royal Exchange have taken three of his plays, A Collier’s Friday Night, The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd and The Daughter-in-Law, and combined them into a single production. All three are domestic dramas set in the homes of mining families, in communities similar to that in which Lawrence grew up.

The Royal Exchange is a “theatre in the round” where the audience is close to the action. For this production the set took us inside the homes of the three families with plans for their houses marked out on the floor. The three plays were, in effect played simultaneously with the action interwoven, flitting from one home to the other in turn. However, when the action was taking place in one household, the actors in the other parts of the set weren’t still. Movement and domestic actions continued in the background. Personally I found this somewhat distracting. And although the set was meant to portray neighbouring houses in a mining village, there was little attempt at interaction between the three families. The production still largely came across as three seperate plays stitched togethor somewhat unconvincingly. One of the defining characteristics of mining villages was their sense of community and this was missing here.

As usual with the Royal Exchange the acting was extremely good. Anne-Marie Duff, well known from TV, is featured in the advertisments for the production and plays the female lead in The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd gave a strong performance. Martin Marquez, as her husband, was a convincing drunkard. However, I was particularly impressed with Julia Ford who played the wife of a miner in A Collier’s Friday Night, who favoured her son over her daughter and husband. The son, like Lawrence, was a college boy and the play echoes the theme of Sons and Lovers. One quibble. I know quite a few people from the East Midlands and I have to say that the majority of the actors’ attempts at a Nottinghamshire / Derbyshire accent were far off the mark.

I’ve never been able to finish a D H Lawrence novel. I’ve tried, but I dislike his writing style and his themes. And these plays were not unlike his novels. Men are men and are hard, cruel and unsympathetic. His women are strong but badly treated by their men folk. Life is hard with little to smile about. Everyone is miserable. Lawrence’s work is about individuals who are doomed to a life of gloom and misery. There is no sense of the strong community and fellowship that was characteristic of mining areas. Little to suggest the determination to fight back. There is talk of a strike in The Daughter-in-Law, but the main emphasis is the domestic strife between the wife, her husband and her mother in law. No sign of the good things of life. It can’t be denied that life was hard in mining communities in the early 20th Century. However, there were little rays of sunshine that could bring joy and some happiness to the lives of the miners and their families. But not according to D H Lawrence.


So something of a “curate’s egg”. Largely unsympathetic characters and, for me, an unrealistic portrayal of traditional mining communities. But strong performances by an excellent cast.



Lady of the Lake

The Theatre by the Lake in Keswick “does exactly what it says on the tin” – it’s a repertory theatre situated close to the northern lake shore of Derwent Water.  It opened in 1999 with funding from an Arts Council Lottery Fund Grant. It has a main auditorium and a Studio theatre. From May to November every year a resident company of up to 14 actors perform a Summer Season of six plays in repertory.

(Picture source; Visit Cumbria website)

We’ve thought about going to see a play there while we’ve been on holiday in the Lake District, but, for various reasons, haven’t been able to to. But during our recent break in Keswick we got tickets to see their production of The Lady of the Lake by a young playwright, Benjamin Askew, in the Studio Theatre.

Studio performances in theatres are usually devoted to new and/or experimental works. And this was the premiere of the first play by, Benjamin Askew who is originally from the Ribble Valley in Lancashire and who spent childhood holidays in the Lake District.

The playwright builds on the Cumbrian take on the legend of King Arthur. There are claims that Penrith is the location of the Round Table and that  his sword, Excaliber, was found in and returned to  Lake Bassenthwaithe. Some have even suggested that Carlisle was the location of Camelot.

The play locates Avalon, a pagan realm, in Cumbria, ruled over by the Lady of the Lake. Arthur and his men, faced with a Saxon invasion, have retreated to Carlisle. This is the seeing for a tale involving a conflict between pagans and Christianity, pagan ritual, incest and ambition and a struggle for power.

(Picture source: Theatre by the Lake website)

There was a cast of seven, relatively large for a Studio production. I thought the two young female performers, Charlotte Mulliner (Nimue) and Emily Tucker (Morgan), were very good, and there was a strong performance by Ben Ingles as the psychopathic warrior Owain.

The “Game of Thrones” and other series set in a mythical or semi-mythical Dark Ages have become very popular on TV and this play rather reminded me of them. I also saw some similarities with the Simon Armitage versions of the Illiad and the Odyssey which we’ve seen in recent years at the Royal Exchange and Liverpool Everyman.

The play was, perhaps, overlong and a little over the top, especially during the second half. The plot got a little over-complicated too, at times. So Benjamin Askew still needs to work on his craft. But overall an enjoyable evening.

The Skriker

On Thursday we went to see The Skriker, the latest production by The Royal Exchange in Manchester, written by Caryl Churchill and starring Maxine Peake in the lead role. The first two weeks of its run were part of the Manchester International Festival. However we saw it during it’s final week, after the Festival.

It wasn’t a conventional play to say the least. A cross between drama, dance, music and an art installation. Very surreal. The Manchester Festival is meant to be about presenting “edgy” and experimental works and this certainly fit the bill.

We had seats on the stage level, but there was no conventional seating. We weren’t sure what to expect. We were guided into the auditorium where there were long trestle type tables set out. We found seats and waited for the performance to begin. It all went dark and then suddenly we were surrounded by performers with actors walking on the tables. We were literally in the middle of it all with performers all around us and walking inches away from us on the tables where we were sat. During one scene when we were surrounded by a choir of zombies and with demons dancing all around the auditorium it felt like we were a part of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.

The Skriker was some sort of “fairy” (in the original, sinister sense) or “shapeshifter” who tormented two young women. The dialogue made little sense and much of the Shriker’s speeches were long, rambling, nonsensical rants, incorporating and twisting common everyday sayings.

Maxine Peake was magnificent in a very demanding role. It was some feat memorising long speeches of nonsense. She came across as menacing, threatening, cunning and vulnerable, as the Skriker changed its form and character. The two other actresses playing principal parts, Laura Elsworthy as Josie and Juma Sharka as Lily, were also good. The rest of the cast were an ensemble dancing, singing, performing strange acrobatics as strange spirits and demons.

Was the Skriker real or was it a figment of Josie’s fevered imagination? She appeared to be in a mental institution at the beginning of the play, probably as a result of killing her baby. Who knows? None of us had a clue what was going on but it was an amazing experience.