By Glyn Maxwell, based on the novel by Anatole France
Directed by Guy Retallack
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: Friday 24th OCtober 2008
We enjoyed this a lot more than the critics, apparently, even though the audience numbers were sadly depleted. It’s a play about the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, and although I knew a bit about it – guillotine, tricoteuses, new calendar, etc. – I wasn’t up to speed on most of the play’s content, which made it an interesting evening if nothing else.
The play is based on a novel by Anatole France, and uses six of his main characters who represent the different ways in which the French people were affected by, and responded to, the Revolution. One, Evariste Gamelin, is selected to become a magistrate, and we see him evolve from being an idealist who fervently believes in the promises of the Revolution to a fanatic who sends people to their death because that’s the only way for the Revolution to set people free. He’s a nutter, basically, but this play does show how people can become corrupted when they believe their cause is just.
He takes up with a pretty young embroidress, Elodie, and his brainwashing turns her into a zombie, spouting Revolutionist slogans. She’s rescued by the end of the Terror, and returns to something like normality. Gamelin’s main friend is Philippe, a chap who’s happy to take advantage of the opportunities that abound when there’s a war, and who’s eventually arrested for profiteering. He actually manages to survive the Terror, but Gamelin is not so lucky. The magistrates are being informed against on a regular basis, and so despite his purity and dedication to the cause, he too is taken away and killed.
There’s also an actress friend of Philippe’s, called Rose Clebert, and she suffers through the shutting of the theatres and the banning of any “improper” plays. As she used to play aristocrats, she’s in danger of being seen as one of them, especially when she comes to the aid of Maurice, a former aristocrat who now lodges with Gamelin. She and Maurice were partners in a game the friends were all playing at the picnic which forms the opening scene. That scene doesn’t include the game itself, but it’s often referred to in later scenes. Maurice (a lovely performance by John Bett) opened the second half of the play with his puppets, and gets us all to join in while he gets ready for a puppet show. Rose comes along and they get talking, and it’s all good fun, with a lot of laughs and some audience participation. Then two citizen soldiers arrive and start throwing their weight around, and the whole scene becomes very unpleasant. They make Maurice shag one of his puppets, and Rose might be on the menu as well, but fortunately Gamelin comes along and sends the men packing. It’s only a temporary reprieve however, as both Rose and Maurice are arrested, with Maurice not surviving to the end. Losing him is tough for her, and she ends up reading his book instead of joining in the parties and fun that Philippe and Elodie are off to.
There’s one final character, played by Belinda Lang, who is Louise Rochemaure, a female wheeler-dealer who spends all her time hatching schemes and trying to get to know the people in power. Through Gamelin, whose appointment to the bench she has orchestrated, she gets to know Marat, and is just about to pull off a big coup when someone kills him in his bath, and she’s suddenly up in front of the courts and not doing very well from the sound of it. She also doesn’t survive.
I enjoyed a lot of this play, not least the performances and the humour. I thought the historical information was put into the dialogue very well, and there were only a couple of places where it seemed a bit like a lecture. I could relate to the characters pretty well, especially Maurice and Rose, and I liked the change from humour and fun to seriousness and menace in that opening to the second half. It took a while to get going, and although I could see why the author wanted to start with the picnic scene, I felt that it was too loose somehow to really engage me. Something seemed to be missing, though I couldn’t say what. The audience did its best to make up for lack of numbers, and I hope the cast were as happy with our performance this evening as we were with theirs.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me