Peterloo

It has been called the greatest historical event never taught (in the UK at least).  The Peterloo massacre, coming hard on the heels of the Battle of Waterloo to which the name ironically refers, was one of the most infamous events in British history, and yet it’s hardly taught at schools at all.  I studied history to A-level and it wasn’t even mentioned.  Mike Leigh’s film attempts to remedy this situation.

The film is a bit of a history lesson and at times feels like one, with references to the Corn Laws and Manchester’s lack of political representation thrown in.  The Corn Laws kept the price of corn artificially high by forbidding foreign imports, thus protecting the farmers but causing great hardship to working people.  This, coupled with the prevalence of so-called ‘rotten boroughs’, areas with no political representation, led to increasing discontent and eventually to a march and rally in St Peter’s Field in Manchester.

‘War and Peace’ never felt very far away: the film begins on a battlefield where a young bugler is staggering around, disorientated and confused among the smoke and dead bodies.  Peterloo happened in 1819, just four years after the end of the Napoleonic wars, and many of the scenes were reminiscent of dramatisations of Tolstoy’s great work.

Like ‘War and Peace,’ the film is an utterly breathtaking panorama.  The action does not centre on one character or group but moves like a diorama from scene to scene, group to group, character to character, in so doing building up a giddying picture of the Dickensian conditions (fifty years before Dickens) in Lancashire at that time.  

It seems ungracious to criticise aspects of the film and in any case all doubts were entirely blown away by the final scenes; but I think it’s fair to say that dialogue has never been Mike Leigh’s strong point: much of it felt clunky and unnatural and some of the rich and powerful characters were totally overdone, again calling to mind the worst excesses of an outraged Dickens.  But all this melted away as the scenes built to a crescendo.  Henry Hunt, the main speaker and a supporter of worker’s representation and women’s suffrage, works his way towards the rally at the same time as families are marching from all corners of Lancashire; men, women and children in their Sunday best clothes in joyful mood and not so much a stick or stone among them that could serve as a weapon.  Their demands are simple: repeal the Corn Laws and give them political representation.  The response of the authorities is (inaudibly) to read the Riot Act and then to send soldiers in to disperse the crowd; to charge, injure and kill.  Fifteen people died and hundreds were injured on that day.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peterloo_Massacre

Though far less deadly it reminded me of Amritsar as portrayed in ‘Gandhi’:

 

The Guardian gives it full marks:

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/nov/03/peterloo-review-mike-leigh-epic-history-lesson

although it doesn’t actually mention that Peterloo led indirectly to the establishment of the Manchester Guardian, the Grauniad’s forerunner;

https://www.theguardian.com/gnm-archive/2002/jun/06/1

And Mark Kermode seems to agree with me:

 

 

And here’s the trailer:

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4614612/videoplayer/vi3720788761?ref_=tt_ov_vi

I urge you to go and see it.  Don’t wait for the DVD – go see it at the cinema.  You’ll thank me.

Kirk out

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Best. Shakespeare. Ever.

I was initially a tad dubious about these beamed-in theatre productions where theatres film their output and transmit it simultaneously to cinemas all over the world.  Whilst I could see that it enabled thousands more people to see a play which they might not otherwise get to attend, it seemed a rather dislocated experience.  It must also be hard for the actors, knowing that they are performing for a dual audience and that as well as having to project to the gods at the National (or wherever) they will have cameras on them doing a close-up.

But I am now a total convert, having seen not only Hedda Gabler from the National but also, on Saturday, the completely amazing NT production of Twelfth Night, starring in a gender-bent role, Tamsin Greig as Malvolia.

I always respected Tamsin Greig as an actor.  Her ultra-distinctive voice is rarely heard on The Archers nowadays, as Debbie is permanently in Hungary, but I loved her in Black Books and various other things on the good box.  But I basically thought of her as a soap/sitcom actress and had No Idea of what heights of comic invention she could ascend on the stage.  Her Malvolia was the funniest, most striking, most pathetic, most hilarious and outrageous I have ever seen.  And though she was the best thing in it, the cast as a whole was far from dusty.  Setefane claimed that Phoebe Fox was the finest member of the cast, playing another gender-bent role, Olivia (a woman pretending to be her own brother).  And ’tis true, she was indeed brilliant, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Tamsin Greig.  Best.  Twelfth Night.  Ever.  In fact, possibly the best Shakespeare ever – in my experience at least.

Gender-bending is common in Shakespeare when not only did boys play women, but characters often pretended to be of the other sex.  But recently in more feminist style, roles have been swapped; so recently Helen Mirren has played Prospera in The Tempest and Maxine Peake, Hamlet:

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/gallery/2014/sep/26/female-hamlets-sarah-bernhardt-maxine-peake-in-pictures

If you get a chance to see this production, go.  Sell your house and all its contents, but go.  It’s terrific.

https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/twelfth-night

Kirk out