A light that never goes out: luddite rebellion returns to Manchester

On 8 April 1812, there was a riot at the Royal Exchange building in Manchester. Protesters were furious about food shortages. When a window was smashed, it all kicked off. Meanwhile, the luddite rebellion was also taking hold.

In a rehearsal room across the city today, actors raise microphones and the sounds of disturbance swell: crowds shouting, scuffles breaking out. It’s eerie, as if they’ve bored back through history. There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, staged by the Kandinsky company at the Royal Exchange, brings the luddites back to life.

“It’s a seance in some way,” suggests co-writer Lauren Mooney. The luddites were a secret band of textile workers who took action against the industrial machinery that put their livelihoods at risk. Leaving letters signed by a fictitious figurehead, General Ludd, they smashed the stocking frame machines that had been brought in and were lowering standards and wages. The movement started in Nottingham but really took hold in Manchester. Seven years later, it helped lead to Peterloo.

Machine-wreckers attack machinery in a textile factory. Photograph: Alamy

“There was nowhere in the world like Manchester at that time,” says director James Yeatman. Working at the Royal Exchange when the Manchester Arena attack happened two years ago, he became fascinated by the city’s identity as flowers were placed in St Ann’s Square and Mancunians inked worker bees – the city’s symbol – into their skin. “It’s more modern, more self-made than London and on top of that it has this fierce, radical political identity,” he says. He wondered how theatre might tap into that and “re-enact Manchester’s history to itself”.

Luddism is generally looked down on today – shorthand for stubborn, regressive technophobia – but the luddites’ situation has parallels with our own age of austerity and automation. Kandinsky opted to leave those implicit and ask, instead, “what it means to take action, what it means to decide you’ve had enough, when violence becomes a reasonable response to a complete lack of options”.

The luddites – “famous failures” as Yeatman admits – might seem an odd choice. Work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd recently said: “No one looks back now and thinks, I wish the luddites had won.” But Mooney’s not so sure they didn’t win: “They were ostensibly defeated – we didn’t have a revolution – but they wanted a limit on working hours in a day, they wanted some protections for workers’ rights, they wanted a minimum wage; all things we’ve got, at least for now.”

All this is typical Kandinsky. Their shows jostle with ideas. “We think of them as essays,” Yeatman explains. They’re rooted in research and written, collectively, during rehearsals. Still Ill (another title inspired by a Smiths song) addressed a paradox of perception: Are you really unwell if your brain tells you so? Trap Street spun a story of gentrification and urban erasure.

Director James Yeatman during rehearsals for There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.

Director James Yeatman during rehearsals for There Is a Light That Never Goes Out. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Kandinsky started as a student company in 2005 – a vehicle for Al Smith’s early plays, Enola and Radio – but lay dormant for almost a decade while Yeatman assisted Simon McBurney. He resurrected the company to devise a show about a serial dog-killer at large in Hong Kong for 20 years. “It seemed like a great subject for a show.” Mooney interrupts: “Or a Wallace and Gromit.”

Dog Show was smarter than that – an essay on urban anomie and canine companionship. Actors doubled as dogs and their owners. “The big question we ask ourselves is always, What’s being performed? What’s the game of representation?” Yeatman explains. “The fun thing is that you know you’re looking at something that’s not real, but you believe it anyway. I have this wanky phrase: Theatre is a kind of reality machine. I’m not entirely sure what it means.”

Yeatman’s being coy. Kandinsky’s shows chase down contemporary illusions – the unreality of urban existence, say. “Naturalism doesn’t feel like a useful representation of reality any more,” Yeatman continues. “Theatre feels quite exciting right now because we’re able to look at what’s real and what’s not.”

The instability of ideas … Dinomania.

The instability of ideas … Dinomania. Photograph: Richard Davenport

Devised theatre in particular, as Yeatman sees it. Where playwrights can write entire worlds into being, tasking directors and designers with realising them on stage, he believes collaborative work is necessarily rooted in reality. “If all you’ve got is some string and a chair, that’s all you’ve got. You have to make do. You’re making from a much more contingent place.”

Last year’s Dinomania demonstrated the instability of ideas and unfolded the evolution of evolutionary theory, watching scientist Gideon Mantell chip away at creationism. Looking back lets Kandinsky step outside the base assumptions of our age. But history is a challenge in theatre’s here and now. “People know the ending,” says Mooney. “People know we discovered dinosaurs. People know the luddites failed. So how can you challenge an audience along the way?”

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