The Masque of Anarchy @ Albert Hall, Manchester, 12 Jul

Maxine Peake entrances in a haunting presentation of Percy Bysshe Shelley's epic evocation of the Peterloo Massacre, The Masque of Anarchy

Review by Emma Madden | 30 Jul 2013

Picture the scene. It's 1819, it's August, and you're one of 60,000 impoverished Mancunians exasperated by the state's indifference towards your plight. But on this summer's day, you're not going to riot for parliamentary reform. Instead, you've dressed up in your Sunday best, packed a picnic and taken your family to St Peter's Field for a day of peaceful protest. Your calm excursion is, however, met with paranoia and fear. Armed cavalry are sent by magistrates to arrest the protest's speakers and diffuse the crowd; armed cavalry that end the lives of 15 attendees and seriously injure hundreds more. The event becomes known as the Peterloo Massacre – a pivotal moment in Manchester's history.

It's no wonder, then, that when reciting the haunting, confrontational 91-verse epic The Masque of Anarchy – written by Percy Bysshe Shelley upon hearing of the massacre – Bolton-born, Westhougton-raised and Salford-educated actress Maxine Peake allows her voice, wrought with emotion, to both roar and tremble. Her performance is staged in Manchester's Albert Hall on Peter Street, a venue that has remained inaccessible to the public for 40 years. It's a breathtakingly beautiful building, but for this production its beauty remains humble, with the only decoration being a mass of candles in front of its awe-inspiring organ. Following some sinister-sounding musical crescendos, Peake, serene in white, takes to the stage carrying a candle of her own to place with the others, before launching into 40 minutes of memorised verse.

Never has Manchester International Festival's motto, 'Made for Manchester, Shared with the World', seemed so apt. The production oozes locality, from the venue, to the presence of a treasured Mancunian actress, to the choice of director Sarah Frankcom, who's also an artistic director of Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre. And although Shelley may have been a southerner who was in Italy when the massacre took place, The Masque of Anarchy remains one of the city's – and perhaps even the world's – most important political poems.

As the poem sweeps from an interpretation of the peaceful protest and massacre into a diatribe upon the cowardice of those responsible for the latter, Peake's performance is suitably animated. She gesticulates, addresses us directly and allows anger to raise her voice to fearsome heights. At the poem's conclusion, however, her words soften; she takes a candle and calmly makes her way through the standing audience, who part without taking their eyes off her. [Emma Madden]

The Masque of Anarchy showed as part of Manchester International Festival