By Trevor Griffiths
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole
Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe
Date: Tuesday 1st September 2009
This was one of those new plays the Globe likes to put on which is supposed to make use of the large stage to address ‘big’ topics – the epic sweep of historical movements being a particular favourite. Unfortunately, these can end up as little more than staged versions of a docu-drama which would be better served by a film or TV mini-series. And so it was today.
The subject matter, the life and works of Thomas Paine (a more apt name for the man can scarcely be imagined) is worthy enough, and even interesting in its own way, but the style of presentation was the usual snippet, snippet, slightly larger snippet, snippet, quick one liner in passing, snippet, snippet, snippet….. No chance to develop characters nor to give any depth to the material being covered, such was the vast scope of the story, encompassing as it did the American War of Independence (we lost) and the French Revolution followed by the Terror (we didn’t much like the winners).
This sense of attending an overlong history lesson was compounded by the costumes – the usual period drab – making it hard to tell when some actors were playing different characters, and the usual loss of a fair chunk of the dialogue was naturally more of a problem with an unknown play than one of Will’s. The ‘trundle’ effect was in full force again, with all sorts of paraphernalia being trundled on and trundled back off again, all very distracting even when covered by a song. The opening sequence was distracting too, with lots of the cast trooping on in several waves during the opening exposition, taking both my eye and my ear off the ball, so to speak.
The play was narrated by Benjamin Franklin, obligingly continuing even after his own death as he himself commented in one of the more humorous bits. To be fair, there was quite a lot of humour throughout, and but for missing the lines I might have laughed a lot more. I suspect there was even more humour which just didn’t come across, but in any case it didn’t make up for the tedious bits.
The story began with Paine’s journey to America and took us through to his funeral, including both of the aforementioned revolutions and a few other bits and bobs. Having seen We, The People and the recent mini-series on John Adams, I found most of this was familiar territory; from a different perspective admittedly but without a great deal of added value. It’s a fascinating period of history in many ways, and yet I’ve still to see any drama set in that time that doesn’t make it seem dull. Comparing this with other plays that do handle history better, by Will and others, I find they usually focus on the personal to help us engage with the characters emotionally, and the recitation of facts is either kept to a minimum or skilfully woven into the fabric of the play. Show, don’t tell. Longer scenes build the momentum, and fortunately some playwrights have no compunction about tinkering with historical accuracy to suit the needs of the drama. (Actually I’m thinking of Schiller’s Mary Stuart, but you can insert whichever example you like.)
Having said all this, I must praise the cast for turning in splendid performances all round, even of the one-legged variety. The music and singing were lovely, and I particularly liked an impassioned speech, in French, by James Garnon as Danton. The on stage translation for Paine’s benefit was a bit distracting (too much historical accuracy?) but once I managed to ignore that, it was good fun to watch Danton rebel-rouse, especially at the end when he suddenly turned all RP on recognising Paine.
So, not a great success from my point of view, and I do hope they can find some better new writing to put on here in future.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me