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Maxine Peake in They

Kay Dick

Adapted and co-created by Maxine Peake, Sarah Frankcom and Imogen Knight

Factory International for Manchester International Festival

John Rylands Library, Manchester

July 5-9, 2023; 45 mins


Maxine Peake in They, in the magnificent - and ironic - setting of Manchester's John Rylands Library. All pics: Tristram Kenton
Maxine Peake in They, in the magnificent - and ironic - setting of Manchester's John Rylands Library. All pics: Tristram Kenton

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Ten years ago, during a Manchester International Festival focused on newly-discovered spaces for the arts, we stood in the Albert Hall – an unrenovated, barely health-and-safety compliant former Methodist chapel, and held our breath.

Maxine Peake was pouring her fearsome talent into Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy, the poet’s passionate condemnation of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, which happened metres away from where we stood. The performance that Peake and director Sarah Frankcom had devised left us in no doubt that this was a demand for political action on issues that were sharply contemporary.

This year, with the horror story that is They, Peake, Frankcom and co-creator Imogen Knight, turned their spotlight on cultural censorship, scaring the pants off us in one of the most awe-inspiring buildings in the city.

Written in 1977 and out of print by the end of the decade, Kay Dick’s They: A Sequence of Unease describes a time when all artistic and creative endeavour is banned and a shadowy, shoeless, marauding horde is gradually destroying all art and any artists that resist. As a small community desperately tries to commit classic works to memory, books mysteriously disappear from shelves, libraries and galleries are gutted and musical instruments destroyed.

Punishment is medieval and horrifically matched; painters lose their eyes, writers their hands, singers their tongues. Single people, too, are tracked down and pay for their non-conformity. Artists are locked away in towers with no light, but with televisions in every room, permanently on to drive out any lingering creative or emotional response.

The burning of books is a fevered ritual of the bigoted that has been with us as long as books themselves, a perpetual metaphor for crushing dissent, destroying freedom and curtailing human rights. To set this reading of a world where culture of all kinds is being wiped out in one of the country’s most beautiful libraries – the John Rylands – was, as the creative team put it, a no-brainer.

The library's main reading room is a cathedral-like space – and cathedrals are well-known for offering both shelter and implacably harsh justice. Would its collection of ancient and precious books survive this onslaught? Maxine Peake’s part-reading, part-recital left us in no doubt that it would not. As she stalked the central aisle, building tension and terror, discarding the pages of her text as she went, it was hard not to wonder if all our own books and music and insignificant but precious pieces of art and craft would still be there, back at home.

The introduction of cameraman and filmmaker Joseph Lynn worked less well – the idea that They were also part of a bigger picture being recorded and destined eventually to fail, perhaps?

The arc of the story and its reworking for this performance meant that occasionally we wished we had the book in our hands, so we could turn back a page or two and check who was who. The leap from the tower prison back to the outside world (not “cured”, despite the privations) was unexplained and may have been clearer in the book. The narrator is ungendered in the text, and there is a subtext of gender fluidity which is not overt, but which adds to our fear for their safety.

With a final plea for hope and love, Maxine Peake walks away, leaving us to the soaring arches of the library, lit splendidly by Amy Mae and surrounded by the music of Melanie Wilson. She did not return to take a bow, just as a priest does not return for applause after a service. We tiptoed out, still quivering, until the bright lights of the foyer gave us the courage to speak above a whisper.


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