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Jack Shepherd’s new play, commissioned by the Globe for this Renaissance and Revolution Season, begins with co-founder William Lovett (Peter Hamilton Dyer) addressing a meeting of the London Working Men’s Association in June 1837, on the first anniversary of its foundation. It then follows the fortunes of the Chartist movement over the next two years: the arguments between those who, like Cornishman Lovett, seek peaceful reform and the encouragement of self-education of the workers and those, like the Irish ex-MP Fergus O’Connor (Jonathan Moore), who want to stir up active revolt if their demands are not accepted.
We see the adoption of the six-point People’s Charter, the meeting on Kersal Moor, at Salford, in September 1938, sponsored by the Manchester Political Union, the 1839 meeting of the Chartist Convention in Birmingham, after which Lovett was arrested, and the march on Newport in November when soldiers fired on the Chartists, killing 24 and injuring many more, which was followed by trials for treason and sentences of death by hanging, drawing and quartering.
With actors not only among the groundlings but sometimes up in the galleries too, the audience becomes the crowd at all these public meetings, but few among them on the press night were moved to applaud the speakers, though one might have assumed that almost all would pay lip service to the Chartists’ demands for:
A vote for every man 21 years of age
A secret ballot
No property qualification for MPs
Payment for MPs
Annual Parliaments (which we still don’t have) to prevent corruption and members from defying their constituents wishes
In fact, Shepherd does not seem to be particularly interested in the nitty-gritty of the politics and he doesn’t explore the regional reasons for differences between the moderate Londoners and the more militant northerners. He has avoided writing an agitprop political piece, but I could have done with a lot more information to understand what was going on and why. Instead he has used this fascinating political background as the setting for a fictional story of Lizzie, a young London flower-seller, who is saved from a life of squalor, privations and potential prostitution by Mrs Harrington (Kirsty Besterman), the wife of a northern mill owner, and taken back to Bradford as a housemaid.
Lizzie becomes the centre of the play, among a multitude of characters – of more than 60 speaking roles she is the only one we follow closely. Louise Callaghan makes her a tough and loyal little tiger who, while still put-upon and exploited, gains some sense of her own worth. She is patronisingly befriended and sexually propositioned by the cook, Eli Morgan (a holier-than-thou cameo by Cornelius Booth), who is killed by her impulsive boot boy lover Will (Craig Gazey). He ends up on the gallows in a very public hanging (British public hangings went on for another three decades) instead of in the hands of the Chartists whose sentences are commuted.
Lizzie can’t read: she is just the kind of person whom Lovett wants to be educated so that she and others can change their lives, but if Shepherd is trying to draw an analogy between her story and the Chartist struggle, it is not explicit. Rather, for a few incidents, they interweave: Will goes to Chartist meetings and at one point Lizzie is asked to carry an important Chartist message.
This is a richly layered piece, well designed to occupy the Globe’s spaces. There are hints, in a scene where Harrington meets two financiers, of some future disaster for the socially responsible industrialist. There is a reminder that many in government were supportive of reform, but from the top, not from the grassroots. In a warning to the military to avoid confrontation in Manchester, there is a memory of the previous massacre at Peterloo, though no specific mention.
In presenting the lower classes there is an early episode of conning the rich, and an amusing (but unlikely) scene at the Harringtons when the downstairs staff get up an entertainment by playing a besotted young Victoria and Albert (who had only recently come to the throne) in gorgeous gowns. There is even a bloody, bare-knuckle boxing match set among the groundlings, which we watch instead of Jenkins’ murder.
As well as the Chartist leaders and their supporters, we briefly glimpse Friedrich Engels, establishment politicians, the military and even some show business celebrities. I was surprised to see a castrati singer among the Harringtons’ guests (though in fact, Velutti had sung in London in the previous decade). I don’t know whether Shepherd’s Cavellini was a real person; the great Black actor Ira Aldridge certainly was, though I am sure that he had clearer speech than this impersonation.
Janet Bird’s designs work largely through the costumes and some very simple added steps and scaffolds to make one concentrate on the early Victorian picture rather than the permanent ornate Globe setting and she and director Mark Rosenblatt have made the play range all over the theatre. This means some scenes are not visible by all – I certainly could not have seen the boxing match from my seat but fortunately, being on the end of a row, I was able to try parts of the play as a groundling and could push through to watch. Sometimes I could not hear, especially when speech was directed away from me – perhaps a problem with my particular position but I have heard the complaint already this season. However, there is so much going on that it doesn’t matter so much if you miss out on a thing or two as you soon catch on.
I don’t know quite how to interpret the title. The military is being told to hold their fire – even if at Newport they didn’t – and the Chartists stopped short of a revolution. I think the play holds fire somewhat too, despite its constant movement. I was longing for it to show a more incendiary spirit, more of what Carlyle called ‘the bitter discontent grown fierce’. Instead, it is in the quiet moments at the end, when Lovett looks forward to a time when people have education, that it holds the most.
Howard Loxton © 2007
Originally published on R&V 05-08-07
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