The John Rylands Library is a late Victorian gothic masterpiece, an act of philanthropic largesse to the city of Manchester by the widow of the industrialist whose name it has long immortalised. It is also an unusual choice for a performance space, normally a place of hushed, almost hallowed silences, it has in recent days been the home of a uniquely inspired theatrical event.
The actress Maxine Peake is a personage not averse to risks and challenges, indeed if she were it is unlikely that she would have tackled the novel They by Kay Dick, but it is to the audience's benefit and the wider world's reward that she has. When the book appeared in 1977 anyone who held expectations of its author were in short supply. She hadn't published a novel for over fifteen years, and when this one arrived it was nothing like any of her previous works.
Set in a strange but unspecified future England it has an interlocking series of almost dreamlike vistas narrated by an observer whose gender the reader has no knowledge of. Paranoid in tone but deeply poetic in its pared down and spartan prose, it is a disturbing read. "They" are everywhere, in the distance or lurking nearby. Artists are taken away and returned if lucky as reprogrammed zombies. Paintings are removed from galleries. Pages are torn from books. It is indeed a grave new world.
The book sank at the time having garnered a cursory set of reviews, one describing it a "menopausal" and by 1980 was out of print and well on its way towards forgotteness. It is an example of the limitations of an audience's expectations of an author, a maverick arrival jars, though in the context of Kay Dick's life it makes sense. A friend of George Orwell's it was she who managed to get Animal Farm into print, hence the bleak, almost sci-fi tone of the book has antecedents. Apart from another largely autobiographical novel The Shelf, about a lesbian affair with a married woman who commits suicide, no further work emerged from the mercurial writer who died out of print and in obscurity in 2001.
What Maxine Peake (adapted and co-created by Maxine Peake, Sarah Frankcom and Imogen Knight) has done is to astutely and finely fillet elements of the story and turn it into a tightening knot of developing drama. The audience are facing each other as she prowls and paces the space between them, though some are lucky enough to be festooned in the cloisters to look down at the proceedings as though in a gallery. Peake reads from sheets. It has the feel of a lecture and sermon, combined with elements of "a happening." Her voice carries with the clarity of a birds aloft the magnificence of her setting. As she reaches the end of a page, she drops it to floor and whilst the performance progresses steps over them as though navigating a street of crazy paving. The evening darkens outside; hence the atmosphere is enhanced naturally by the fading light entering via the stained-glass windows. Her tale of grief and fear is almost too claustrophobic to sanction, but as the end nears, via the beautifully rendered prose, hope and defiance returns, and an edge of positivity remains. It is a deeply unsettling but rewarding accomplishment, deftly delivered but never overstated.
Kay Dick's novel was rediscovered and republished last year after a publisher's bidding war, to wide acclaim as a lost dystopian masterpiece with plaudits from Margaret Atwood and Edna O'Brien. Its themes of artistic sublimation and societal unease more pertinent to now than when it was written largely to be ignored. Maxine Peake's strikingly assured performance should be taken from city to city. This is a parable for our times, created long before them, that deserves to be staged, widely and in unusual places. That this one transpired in the sanctity of a magnificent library betrayed a neatness of touch, a deftness that will be hard though not impossible, to replicate.