The struggle of the Luddites against mechanisation fuelling the Industrial Revolution is often used to teach us, change is inevitable and resistance to it is futile. Both statements have their truths. But is there another truth we still often overlook? That is: the high price of rapid change on human life?
It is this impact that writers Laura Mooney and James Yeatman turn to in their exploration of the early 19th century Luddite rebellion in Manchester.
At the start an actor tells us to view the piece as verbatim theatre, where the dialogue is all based on factual-information sourced from letters, handbills and newspaper articles. Where there are gaps, we’re told they’ve improvised. If only they hadn’t, because it feels the gaps are filled with little more than FFS expletives, losing the authenticity of the original voices. This is a shame, because there is a strong story in here and it is ambitious of the Royal Exchange to stage it.
The stage is bare except for a raised red slope across the centre, on which everything is an uphill struggle for the weavers and mill workers. The opening, with the use of microphone stands to transport us to a new world via sound, feels like we’re in a rehearsal workshop. However, once we’re tuned in and let our imaginations run, Naomi Kuyck-Cohen and Joshua Gadsby’s design becomes absorbing.
There is a Light demands a lot from its audience. There are no character names and yet there are identifiable people, some of whom are recorded as being hanged for their part in the Luddite movement. The mix of modern and period dress forces us to draw comparisons with the digital revolution of today. However, portraying Luddites wearing baseball caps and anoraks, while swaggering with hands down their pants, leaving go of their genitals only to smash windows, does little to express the depth of desperation these men felt at having their livelihoods taken from them with no other means to survive. Starving and destitute they wrote to a Parliament that didn’t allow them the vote. To compare that Regency period to today’s government feels unnecessarily divisive and laboured, broad-brushing the Luddites once again.
The cast take on a variety of roles, each at one point donning a heavy overcoat as the mythical Nedd Ludd. The play leaves little space for character development, but Katie West, as open and naïve mill worker, Clem encapsulates the struggle of the times, bringing genuine emotion and humanity to the stage.
It’s striking that even those, like Clem, who appear to move with the times by joining the legions of mill workers don’t benefit from the progress. Technological advances create a different job market, but it’s one that concentrates wealth into the hands of the few. The Luddites knew this in 1812 and sadly, this timely production reminds us, a fair wage for a fair day’s work is something we still need to fight for.★ ★ ★
There is a Light that Never Goes Out: Scenes from the Luddite Rebellion is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 25 July to 10 August 2019.