When he dropped his summer budget last week, Chancellor George Osborne made a point of renewing his vow to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’. This despite admissions that nobody in government is sure yet where exactly the powerhouse is: will Liverpool be plugged in? Newcastle? One thing’s for certain; Manchester looks likely to be at the centre of this nebulous beast.
But it is precisely that sort of vague political language that makes Maxine Peake – former member of the Young Communist League, political firebrand, rock singer, Bafta-winning actor and Northern lass – deeply uneasy.
“This Northern Powerhouse they keep talking about makes my stomach flip a bit. Everyone is talking about all the investment coming to Manchester. But we know that when it happens there are a lot of people that get forgotten and swept under the carpet,” she points out. “Yes, we’ve got [arts centre] Home. Yes, we’ve got the Factory coming. But you walk out of the Royal Exchange Theatre and there’s a homeless protest.”
We’re not representing England as the diverse place that it is
Social inequality cuts Peake, 40, deeply. A passionate socialist, those protesters who have set up camp outside the city centre theatre, where she is appearing in an acclaimed new production of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker (below) as part of the Manchester International Festival, are for her a constant reminder of what government funding cuts are doing to the most vulnerable in society.
“I’ve been chatting to people there and it’s been breaking my heart,” she says, expressing disgust that earlier this year the city’s Central Library employed security guards to stop protesters using its public toilets.
“Manchester used to pride itself as a progressive city. Now it doesn’t feel that we’re looking after our people. If this is going to be the price we pay for being some big industrial stronghold, I don’t know if that’s the Manchester I want to be in. London is going to become some sort of gated city soon where only the privileged can afford to live. I would hate Manchester to become the same.”
She feels there is a disconnect between the populace and politicians that’s eating at the heart of democracy: “I’m annoyed we voted not to have a mayor and then we get one thrown at us. Where’s the democracy in that? If it’s some sort of Tory experiment, I can’t say I’m happy about it.”
Do the arts have a role to play in fighting against that breach? Peake, who lives in Salford with her partner Pawlo Wintoniuk, says that when she was younger she would “get slightly annoyed” when people spoke of the theatre and arts being a force for change. “I used to think: ‘Oh, bog off.’ But now I’ve got older, I feel people are looking to culture to get some inspiration to be able to start a debate.”
However, she believes that theatre, TV and films made in the UK still fail to reflect reality. “We bang on about the female roles, but there are lots more issues that aren’t being tackled. We’re not representing England as the diverse place that it is.
“As I’ve got older the work has got better, but I’ve had the power in a way. I’ve been lucky because I’ve been able to have some input into creating some of my own work. The younger actors I meet have a different view. It’s a business now and they know that. America is on the list of things to do.
“When I started it was just the National Theatre and the RSC,” she continues. “We were told: ‘Get 10 years of decent work under your belt and that will be the start of your career.’ That’s what happened to me. I don’t think I’d be acting if I was a youngster today. The competition is a lot stiffer now.”
Playing a malevolent supernatural being in a variety of guises in The Skriker is, Peake admits, “harder than Hamlet”, in which she played the lead at the Manchester International Festival last year. “It’s very physical and there’s a lot of movement in it, which is something I’ve not really done before.”
Describing it as “a clarion call”, she explains that “it harks back to a time when life was simpler, when we were a country that was very pagan and the land was kind. We revered the land and now we don’t. We just seem to poison and punish it. So we reap what we sow.
“It’s a real theatrical experience,” she says. “I don’t think people will go away and go: ‘I got every moment of that play’. But it’s not meant to be like that. Maybe it will make people look at what we’re doing on a global scale and how wrong it is. But you can’t fight climate change until you tackle capitalism because money is king and this evil disease of capitalism has infected everything. We’re at crisis point and it won’t start getting better unless we do something now.”
It’s clear the Bolton-born actor is not one to avoid a tough road. That fearlessness is part of what makes her one of the most-loved actors – and now singer, with the Eccentronic Research Council – of our generation. “I think a lot of people would read the script for The Skriker and go: ‘I don’t know where to start.’ But if you worry about whether people are going to like it, you’re on a hiding to nothing. If it moves you there will always be a percentage of people who will come with you.”