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Holding Fire! at Shakespeare’s Globe

Marion Marples

Jack Shepherd's new play at the Globe has many contemporary and local resonances.

Ostensibly about the rise of the Chartist movement to give voting rights to the ordinary man, in 1839, Shepherd draws the modern audience into the ongoing debate of rights v responsibility. The Globe's arena easily becomes hovel, tavern, prison, chapel, stately home. The groundlings are part of the crowd, harangued, preached at and finally witnesses to an execution.

We see the complex layering of Victorian society and the variety within each layer, from the abject poverty of the Rookeries to the inhuman working conditions of the Nottingham weavers and Bradford mills. There is dissent among the Chartists themselves: the mild mannered William Lovett (Peter Hamilton Dwyer) beilieves in education as the way out of poverty, whereas fiery orator Feargus O'Conner (Jonathan Moore) believes in a violent uprising.

The wealthy Harringtons, mill owners and philanthropists, believe that they can help the deserving poor, by rescuing feisty Lizzie Bains (Louise Callaghan) from the Rookeries and giving her a position in their household, which Lizzie is keen to exploit. However, Will the boot boy (Craig Gazey), jealous of the affections of the local preacher, commits murder. As they flee justice the pair make a curious journey through England and Wales, witnessing numerous Chartist rallies.

The establishment of course has to keep the upper hand and cannot in the end 'Hold Fire!' After the bloody massacre at Newport (the bullet holes are still visible today) Will is executed for murder. In the course of 35 years the Chartists largely achieved their demands, but at the cost of imprisonment of some of the early activists.

The local interest comes from knowing that there was a great Chartist demonstration in 1848 on Kennington Common and also from the appearance as a social commentator of Ira Aldridge, a famed black Shakespearian actor who appeared to great acclaim at the Old Vic and around the country, and who recognised that the plight of the English working class was actually worse than that of the black slave in America.

In the fast moving and well cast production by Mark Rosenblatt there is much to savour and enjoy. The musicians, directed by Joe Townsend, anchor the story in English folk tradition. At the end, however, I was not sure where I had arrived but I certainly enjoyed the journey.

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