Maxine Peake recently performed Shelley's The Masque of Anarchy to sell-out audiences. She talks to Socialist Review's Pat Carmody about the poem and her new radio play about a 1993 colliery occupation by miners' wives.
What attracted you to The Masque of Anarchy?
I got approached. I bumped into Alex Poots, who runs the Manchester International Festival, and he just said, "I want someone to read The Masque of Anarchy and then we want to do a discussion about protest and the future of protest in this country. Are you interested?"
I knew the last stanza from political meetings but I didn't know it was a 91-verse poem. It's massive! At first I didn't quite get it. But as we started pulling it to pieces, I was surprised how relevant it was. I understood why people still quoted it today. I didn't know about its connection to Peterloo either.
Did you know much about Peterloo?
I knew about Peterloo. I knew about Petersfield, how there'd been a demonstration and the authorities had turned on them, how there'd been a massacre. I didn't know how many or the ins and outs. But then the project snowballed and it's been brilliant. It started small and I didn't give it much thought - then it just exploded. Albert Hall holds 2,000 people and it sold out every night.
So what do you think makes the poem relevant?
It's relevant because it is about the eternal struggle. It's about fighting for democracy and - apart from some of the names - that could easily be about the lot we've got today. I find that frightening. The poem was written over 200 years ago and we're still asking for the same thing - basic human rights, food, a home, jobs, peace. It doesn't seem like a lot to ask.
There's a lot about politicians' corruption in it. Do you feel that today from ordinary people in Manchester?
I had people stop me in the street about it. I had started to panic that we'd got so apathetic that we were frozen about what we could do. The feedback I've had has been really inspiring. People are angrier now more than ever.
How do you feel about how people look to the Labour Party or what the trade unions are doing?
I'm extremely disappointed with the Labour Party, but I always have been. It should be done under the Trades Descriptions Act. You'd think that now would be its time but there's no one speaking for ordinary people now. But, at Tolpuddle, the amazing thing was the trade unions still being there. I'm in Equity and I've always been in it. I'm surprised that when the Equity rep comes in so many actors say, "I'm not paid up." What happened? I was brought up to believe you joined the union and that's what you did.
Do you think there's anything that art and artists can do in fighting for change?
Definitely, but there's a fine line. I get asked to speak at meetings but I'm an actor, not a politician. I pick my work - it has to speak socially or politically to me. But I do think a lot of people are petrified of opening their mouth because they think it's going to threaten their career.
People are sick to death of politicians; they don't want to listen any more, do they? So I think people are looking at people in different mediums now to get politicised. But no one seems to have opinions any more. Look at Vanessa Redgrave - I didn't politically agree with her. I was in the Young Communist Party, but I admired the fact that she spoke out. And we've always had a tradition. Remember the miners' strike - through all that hardship and what came out of that - the poetry, the amount of pressure the women put on.
That time was so important to people of our generation. The full crisis of it was never relayed on the news and I'm wondering now, with Thatcher gone, that there's a drama out there screaming to be made about the miners' wives. I'm just writing an afternoon play for Radio 4 about Anne Scargill when she occupied Parkside in 1993. We're recording it in September.
I spoke to all the women and recorded them, and from that I've written the story. I wanted to do something about that time but I didn't know where to start. I remember that incident very clearly. I've been sitting on the idea for about ten years. I read David Peace's GB84 years ago when I was doing a BBC drama called Faith, set around the miners' strike, but it was very tame.
Do you think the BBC would do something like that now? It's interesting that it is doing stuff around the welfare state that it never dared to do under Thatcher.
I do wonder, now that Thatcher's gone, whether it would be brave enough to do something about the miners. But when you look at the news coverage of Thatcher's death and what audience they were pandering to then - the Daily Mail readers, middle England - I'm not sure if it is brave enough. What infuriates me is that people didn't realise what the miners and their families went through. It feels like our last, big major struggle. That was the idea - smash the unions - and this is the legacy. We're really floundering now.
You chaired a meeting at Tolpuddle, talking about the poor conditions that many workers suffer. Was that the first time you got an idea about what was happening in different industries?
I was really surprised about zero hours contracts. It's really shocking.
But it's funny because actors actually get treated very badly. I speak to a lot of actors now who say, "God, I remember the days when you could just scrape by just acting." I'm doing alright but I've got friends who now just can't do it because every TV company, every production company, is saying there's no money. They've been using that excuse for a hell of a long time. But I think Equity feels like it's gearing up again.
You said you pick a lot of your work. I think a lot of people liked Shameless because of how the characters were quite downtrodden but actually got by and were part of a community.
The other side of it was that the Tories have used Shameless to help push through policies such as the Bedroom Tax. I think maybe in some respects Shameless did feed into that scrounger thing, feeding into people's prejudices.
But it did have that sense of community and it did show working class people that weren't always miserable, alcoholic wife-beaters. It gave a joy to it. I think when Shameless first started it was about people who loved each other. That's why such a cross-section of people really loved it.
But we really need the voices of real people now. That's why the Parkside women are so inspiring. I sent it to the director and she said, "It's really funny." That's it - the fun, the camaraderie, that's what inspired me.
I believe completely that it was the women that kept that strike going as long as it did. I think Thatcher thought the women would buckle but she really misjudged them. And they had the cheek to call her The Iron Lady!
I just think we really need those voices now. I was interviewed by some magazine, Grazia I think it was. They had this thermometer thing that said "Up this week - Maxine Peake for coming out as a socialist". Coming out? I've always been a socialist but for years nobody was interested. I talk about politics and especially being a woman but they didn't take you seriously. Now people are starting to take some interest.
Maxine Peake's dramatisation of the Parkside colliery occupation will be broadcast on Radio Four on 4 November 2013.