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A CurtainUp London Review
A New World A Life of Thomas Paine
The play is introduced by Benjamin Franklin (a remarkable physical resemblance from Keith Bartlett) who stays to narrate beyond his death in 1790. Franklin inserts witty aphorisms into what could so easily have been a heavyweight historical treatise. There are both those he actually said, like "love thy neighbour, yet don't pull down your hedge" . . . silly anachronisms to lightening effect ("America, don't you just love it!"). . . or quoting Marx and, just as you think the dates are awry, he delivers the punchline "Groucho Marx." This allowed because he is the narrator.
I was surprised at the amount of detail Trevor Griffiths has woven into his play and which is presented in an interesting and dramatic way. This is less surprising when we realise that this was originally prepared as a screenplay for four or five hours of television.
From the journey by boat across the Atlantic to witnessing a slave auction, we see Paine's first experiments at writing pamphlets and his negotiations with the printers. There are the craftsmen and artisans Paine mixes with as well as the famous. There are the well known characters of the War of Independence as it is called in Britain, the American Revolution to the rest of the world.
We live through Washington's winter with his Continental Army at Valley Forge and the debates as to the nature of the Constitution and the founders of the American Republic, George Washington (Dominic Rowan), and Samuel Adams (James Garnon), Thomas Jefferson (Jamie Parker) who were (except Washington) signatories to the Declaration of Independence. There is Paine's rivalry with New Yorker Gouverneur Morris (Sean Kearns), the peg legged politician (a difficult physical role for the actor) with his centralist ideas and insistence on society's need for an aristocracy which put him at odds with Paine. Paine's single manuscript is stolen and thought lost. You can imagine the writer's delight when it is found on the body of the spy Anderson (Jack Laskey) and returned.
The American story alone would be hugely ambitious for any stage play to cover but after the interval, there is a fresh look at revolution with the story of France from the 1780s encompassing men like Danton (James Garnon), Marat (Jamie Parker), Robespierre (Gregory Gudgeon) and Thomas Paine's interaction as an inspiration for the French revolutionary thinkers. Paine's book The Rights of Man is written in defence of the French Revolution and in response to Edmund Burke's criticism. The audience is given the opportunity to compare the two movements and the outcomes. Paine is attacked by the mob, ignorant of his contribution to the cause, for not wearing the revolutionary tricolour cockade. Trust the French to worry about fashion! The Reign of Terror takes hold and Paine is imprisoned under threat of execution for eight months. Here Paine finishes the second part of his anti-religion book The Age of Reason and lives to return to the United States where his ideas are attacked by religious protestors in New York. At the end of his life he is still writing about the inequality and wretchedness he finds in agricultural communities in America. So much of Paine's writing was ahead of its time with his ideas about welfare payments and pensions.
John Light gives us the intensity of Thomas Paine, in an inspiringly serious portrayal of the man who forged those far reaching ideas of freedom which trail blaze the era of reform. I loved too James Garnon as Danton whose exciting speeches in French are continuously translated by the second woman in Paine's life, Carnet (Alix Riemer) for the benefit of Paine and the largely English speaking audience. "Un guerre de mots" describes the drama of this delivery beautifully.
The costumes are a joy, accurate pale colours for the founding fathers and, in France, Robespierre's elaborate wig, the delicacy of his costume contrasting with his bloodthirsty regime. We even see a befuddled and forgetful Benjamin Franklin with the curious but hilarious effect of his wig on back to front. The top balcony has been extended to house action as well as the musicians where Stephen Warbeck's composed songs also contribute to the variety of dramatic delivery. On the balcony there is a beautiful giant globe of the earth surrounded by circles and quadrant dividers of brass. The guillotine scene, should you wonder, takes place off stage with just the slicing noise of the blade and the thud. As usual, at the Globe, carts enter the auditorium with the actors creating a path through the Pit's standing audience like the parting of the waters.
After Dominic Dromgoole's very successful and skilled direction of this wonderful historical play (I didn't even notice the discomfort of the Globe's wooden benches) my challenge to him would be to commission an adaptation of the life and times of Samuel Pepys from Claire Tomalin's superb biography.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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