Sub-titled “Scenes from the Luddite Rebellion”, this play has no relation to the song of the same name by The Smiths. What we get is a fascinating history lesson about the Luddite Rebellion and how the rise of the machine in the Industrial Revolution devastated the livelihoods of the working-classes, when their jobs were replaced with modern technology.
Unemployment soared and families were plunged into poverty. Even those who had work couldn’t afford to live. Meanwhile, the Prince Regent, George IV lived a life of extravagance, as the newly restored Tory Party “subjected this country to misery”. The elite got richer as the working-classes became poorer.
The parallels between this period in history and today’s Britain are striking, as there are 14 million people living in poverty. With computers replacing jobs and a rapid increase of zero hours contracts, after years of austerity, workers’ livelihoods are once again threatened. It is difficult not to associate the timing of staging this play as being a deliberate political statement, calling for change.
James Yeatman and Lauren Mooney‘s screenplay is meticulously researched, constructed from eyewitness accounts, newspaper articles, and letters. Providing a plethora of different voices, this play shows how the Luddite Rebellion grew from a revolt in Nottingham to a national movement. The cast play a multitude of different characters, deftly switching between traditional performance and rousing recitals of political statements.
The play’s narrative centres on a real-life family of Lancashire cotton mill workers. A young girl, Clem, works as a scavenger, risking her life to clean underneath the loom. Her father, Thomas, is a recently unemployed weaver, whose job has been replaced by the very machines that his daughter now services. By focalising the narrative, the play provides a relatable human story behind a national political movement, establishing an emotional connection to the plight of the Luddites.
Although the story is set firmly in the 19th Century, a contemporary angle is provided for the Luddites’ stories to be made relevant to a modern audience. Clothing is distinctly present-day, with factory workers wearing green tabards, and the Luddites wearing jeans, trackie bottoms, and hoodies. Dialogue is updated too, with modern slang phrases and swearing. Juxtaposing historical events with a modern setting is initially confusing, but is a refreshing and original way of storytelling.
Modern theatrical technology alongside Pete Malkin‘s outstanding sound design reinforce this clash between ages past and present. Microphones are carried aloft by the actors. When pointed skyward, birdsong fills the air. As they are pointed to the ground, there is the sound of chickens clucking. These peaceful, rural sounds are swiftly replaced by the deafening roar of the loom, when the actors carrying the microphones mimic the relentless movement of the machines. This jarring contrast of sounds is overwhelming, assaulting your senses.
Throughout, Malkin’s sound design is suitably overbearing, attacking the audience with sounds of crowds jeering and cheering, the mechanical reverberations of the loom, and the destruction of the machines. This is most effective when the Luddites take forcible possession of the Royal Exchange building in 1812. Incidentally the same building in which this theatre is now housed, the sound effect of windows smashing is brilliantly paired with the action of the actors popping bubbles. Malkin inventively brings history alive with his masterful sound design.
The Luddite Rebellion is a vital, but sadly overlooked, part of Manchester’s heritage. In school, we made trips to cotton mills, like Quarry Bank Mill, but we were never taught about the Luddites. I only heard about them when I watched the brilliant Luddite song on Horrible Histories. This play similarly makes history appeal to a modern audience by bringing a refreshingly inventive, contemporary approach to telling historical events.
Politically rousing, with sublime sound design, this is an unforgettable play that is startlingly relevant. By telling the human stories behind the Luddite Rebellion, it forges an indomitable link with this city’s industrial past that is utterly compelling.