Review: The Machine / The Masque of Anarchy, MIF

“And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain.
Heard again—again—again—“

A sneaky brief return trip to Manchester allowed me to take in two more of the shows in this year’s Manchester International Festival and whilst one was definitely world class, the other didn’t quite match up for me. Starting with the latter, Matt Charman’s play The Machine dramatises the iconic chess series between Garry Kasparov and the IBM computer Deep Blue and delves way back into their respective pasts to see how they came to be – Kasparov driven to grandmaster status by his determined mother, Deep Blue brought into being by an equally fierce creator, the Taiwanese Dr Feng-hsiung Hsu.

In Campfield Market Hall, Josie Rourke’s production of this sprawling play feels very much like a sub-Enron pastiche, borrowing heavily from the visual audacity of that Headlong play but floundering in the far greater space of this stage. The scale means that the play often achieves the level of spectacle but it rarely feels like great theatre. Multiple scenes wind back through history to trace the progress of the entities that would contest this match-up and there’s undoubtedly strong work from Hadley Fraser and Francesca Annis as Kasparov and his fearsome mother, and Kenneth Lee as the prof, helped out by Brian Sills’ grandmaster employed to teach strategy to the computer. 

Personally, I felt the main problem was this mish-mash of styles that dragged the show every which way. The choreographic element made a bold visual statement but one which pulled against the biographical elements of the writing, and then there’s the additional layer of geo-political intrigue, the idea that more than just pride was at stake in the opportunities for global promotion that IBM were determined to milk to the very end. The enthusiastic verve just about pulls it off but for this play to gain any future life, it really does need to be reconceived for a more intimate space and trimmed down accordingly. 

The real highlight though was Maxine Peake’s incandescent performance of The Masque of Anarchy. The poem covers a horrific piece of Manchester’s history, the Peterloo Massacre where military cavalrymen charged into a huge crowd of protestors, and was written by Shelley as a response to the traumatic events. Directed by Sarah Frankcom, Peake’s instinctive narration is a perfect fit for a poetic performance, her very presence utterly engaging against the candle-heavy backdrop of the Albert Hall, just metres from the site of the massacre. But it’s more than just a tribute to a local event, Shelley raises questions about the nature of protest which in Peake’s hands feel utterly relevant to our own time, so much of its message remaining as pertinent as ever. 

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 21st July

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