I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
Rage against the machine
How do you attract an audience to a new production about industrial conflict from over two hundred years ago? It is not an easy sell - even in Manchester in the middle of events to mark the 1819 Peterloo Massacre.
Director James Yeatman and Lauren Mooney (listed as the dramaturg, rather than the writer) offer a kind of historical cabaret format.
At the start of the evening Daniel Millar, one of the actors, explains that the episodic scenes we are about to see are based on first-hand testimonies – with extra dialogue to fill in the gaps left by the historical records.
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. Scenes from the Luddite Rebellion focuses on the machine-breaking movement which was at its height between 1811 and 1816.
In particular, it zooms in on the clandestine meetings of followers of the mythical General Ludd, in Lancashire. They vary in age and background but are brought together – or 'twisted in' – by shared grievances against the greedy machinery of Regency England and the new technology which threatens to shaft the human workforce.
This is an age without a welfare state and a National Health Service and when trade unions were banned.
The scenes with the most dramatic tension involve the informer John Stones (Reuben Johnson) and Colonel Ralph Fletcher (Amelda Brown). At first, John Stones is a penniless, gauche comic turn – thinking he will be paid for vague anecdotes about Luddite meetings.
As the action unfolds it becomes apparent that he will betray his comrades to the gallows – as long as he gets his pieces of silver.
Thomas cannot reconcile himself to the loss of agricultural life and Clem's switch from family farmworker to exploited mill girl.
Katie West's performance in Blindsided, 2014, at the Royal Exchange, won Twitter praise from Gary Lineker, amongst others.
Her empathy and versatility shine through again, in this production. Indeed, versatility is a vital quality for all the actors on stage, as they switch characters and change accents at the drop of a hat.
Nisa Cole, Amelda Brown & David Crellin. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
The actors wear modern dress and the unconventional approach is underlined by a make-shift wardrobe in one corner of the theatre-in-the-round, which the cast go to when they are not in the spotlight.
This makes Pete Malkin's sound design even more crucial in conjuring up the dramatic magic.
The soundscape is wonderfully disorientating – it includes Blondie, Mozart's Requiem, the hammer and drone of mill machinery and a haunting, ominous hum which hints at the gruesome fate of so many Luddites.
Were the Luddites vandals or folk heroes? There Is A Light That Never Goes Out allows us to make our own minds up. Above all, it is another reminder that English history has much more to it than the lives and deaths of Kings and Queens.
It is also a compelling example of how history can be dramatised without a corset or codpiece in sight.
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out is a Royal Exchange Theatre production in association with Kandinsky theatre company.