29 July 2019.
Royal Exchange, Manchester.
Sub-titled Scenes From The Luddite Rebellion, Lauren Mooney and James Yeatman’s new production provides exactly that – a rousing collection of voices, sounds and stories from a time of great turmoil.
Drawing on archive material, including letters, court reports and newspaper articles, Mooney and Yeatman trace the increasing radicalism of a group of Lancashire mill workers living through the crush and clamour of the early 19th century’s industrial revolution. Developed in collaboration with the company, the piece depicts the workers’ lives with care and commitment, while filling in the gaps in the factual record to create a gripping account of their struggle for social justice.
These were extraordinary times. Tales of everyday life rub up against accounts of secret gatherings, seditious acts, illegal oaths and threatening letters. Meanwhile, the King descends into madness, the Prince Regent parties on, and an unpopular Tory government is reinstated.
It’s the material of countless gritty costume dramas, but here it all unfolds within a stripped-back contemporary setting. A simple wooden platform slopes upwards from the middle of the stage, covered in a glossy red surface – its vivid colour hinting at danger and bloodshed.
Design-wise, it’s initially more reminiscent of a theatre workshop than a full-blown show. Cast members sit in-waiting to the side of the audience, with the props desk, costume rail and technical support on full display. It feels like a statement of sorts – a full disclosure of the means of production, as well as a sincere invitation to join in this collective journey of discovery.
Rigorously researched source material doesn’t stand in the way of imaginative interventions. Stylistically it’s reminiscent of the Exchange’s 2017 production of Persuasion, which Yeatman worked on with Jeff James. Visual flourishes and flights of fancy occasionally interrupt the cool minimalist staging, there’s a Rapture-ous glimpse of the royal household at play and a bubble gun powered depiction of riotous mayhem. The Luddite’s imaginary leader General Ludd stalks the stage like a mysterious menacing figure – to those in power he has become a bogeyman, and here with his distinctive costume and deep distorted voice he could have stepped straight out of a Hollywood slasher movie.
Modern technology is deployed in pursuit of the sounds of the period. At first, it’s playfully done, a handheld microphone discovering the comforting noises within a family farm, or thrust skywards to capture idyllic birdsong. Soon, the deafening clatter of the mills takes over as mic stands frantically sweep the stage while mimicking the movements of the weaving machines. Spotlights that elaborately manoeuvre towards their ‘targets’ like sinister surveillance devices add to the growing sense of unease.
Beyond an initial humorous threat to smash any mobile phones that ring during the performance, there’s no attempt to explicitly draw parallels between the Mules and Jennys, and the new technologies that fuel today’s economic growth. We’re left instead to draw our own conclusions.
Time, however, often feels slippery, and characters will use a modern-day turn of phrase or speak with contemporary intonation. Clothes too reflect the age we live in, as weavers sport tabards and jeans, and conspirators gather together clad in fleeces and trackie bottoms. These don’t feel like folk from bygone times but real people that have “gone out and shut the door before we got in”. While events move at a fast pace, we learn enough about characters like mill workers Clem (Katie West) and Nan (Nisa Cole) to feel angered by the injustices they endure.
That crystal clear connection across the centuries coupled with stirring storytelling invests There Is A Light That Never Goes Out with a surprising undercurrent of urgency. Summoning up the Luddites’ radical and rebellious spirit so powerfully serves to remind us that change is always possible, even now.
Images by Manuel Harlan