A friend of mine had for years been urging me to read Anatole France\'s Les Dieux ont soif (The Gods Will Have Blood) and I finally got round to it. I felt instantly this was what I wanted – the story of a good man who loses his soul to abstract ideals, set against the most thrilling period of European history – the French Revolutionary Terror.
And while I was thinking about this the world was still reeling from the effects of idealists turning monstrous in the service of abstractions – which covers 9/11, the rush to war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Beslan, Madrid, 7/7, the list goes dismally on… We\'ve had seven dark years in the world, with history moving as dizzyingly fast as in that period 1789-93, where you see a relatively bloodless triumph of remarkably progressive ideals – liberté, égalité, fraternité – mutate into terror and oppression.
To see the US government go into a back room and tear up its Constitution so as to license torture and rendition is to experience a real historical vertigo – suddenly 1776 seemed futile, or fragile as candlelight. (I\'m less interested in the barbarism of extremists who\'ve never purported to believe in freedom or equality.)
For a play like Liberty, which needs to be grounded in historical fact, I read a lot, watched films, researched for months, \'grew\' the characters in my mind. When I felt I was ready for a first draft, I checked into a featureless hotel and wrote for five days. This play went through various drafts and workshops, getting stronger and fitter. But my process is always to go somewhere anonymous and write from four in the morning to about suppertime with a siesta in the middle. When the characters are really ready – like greenhouse plants I guess – I write their words almost as fast as they\'re said, because their voices simply carry me away.
The Globe only came into the picture when Liberty had gone through four drafts, so it was already substantially formed. But rewriting the play with the Globe in mind certainly affected its evolution. I expanded it, wrote some new scenes – it\'s a five-act play that I thought, strangely, lacked an Act Two – and also assumed – wrongly as it turned out – that we\'d have a few extras for crowd scenes. In the end we have eight actors who do everything. And this is working out fine. Because they\'re brilliant, though obviously bloody tired. But this is a show that has to travel out from the Globe into indoor, smaller theatres on tour, and of course one hopes it has a life beyond, so I\'m glad it\'s not saddled with a cast of thousands.
The Globe at first seems to be luring the playwright to sprawl, to stretch out, but the more I see shows there the more I think what always works best are intimate duologues and triologues – which Liberty is almost composed of. The space isn\'t that shape by accident – the focus brought to certain areas of the stage is almost supernatural. The Globe can feel like a mouthpiece through which one is calling up history.
Which brings us to Shakespeare. Inspiration or intimidation? If a child who loves football watches film of Pele in action, does he say, “what the hell, forget it, I\'ll get a job at McDonald’s”, or does he say, “oh I want to be him, I want to do that”? Only the English find this presumptuous.
Liberty runs at Shakespeare\'s Globe from 3 September to 4 October 2008 (previews from 31 August) and then tours to York, Exeter, Guildford, Oxford, Coventry and Chichester. It’s directed by Guy Retallack and produced by Sue Scott Davison for Lifeblood Theatre Company.