The world premiere of A New World, an epic new play by acclaimed dramatist Trevor Griffiths (Comedians, Reds), opened last week at Shakespeare's Globe (3 September, previews from 29 August).
The final production in the Globe's Young Hearts season (See News, 12 Feb 2009), it's helmed by artistic director Dominic Dromgoole and celebrates the life and work of Thomas Paine in the year that marks the 200th anniversary of the English radical’s death.
John Light, whose stage credits include Julius Caesar and The Tempest for the RSC and Apologia at the Bush, leads the 20-strong cast as Thomas Paine. Tim Shortall designs a production that features music by Academy Award winning composer Stephen Warbeck.
Overnight and weekend critics were divided. On the pro side, the Guardian's Michael Billington writes that Griffiths “has the priceless ability to show the power of Paine's ideas and to make history come alive”. On the con side, Henry Hitchings of the Evening Standard found the play “dramatically stunted”, echoing the sentiments of several of his colleagues. Length and density were issues for many, with Whatsonstage.com's Maxwell Cooter suggesting A New World would work better as a “mini-series” rather than a play. Most were agreed however that despite any structural flaws, the play certainly provides a timely celebration of our “greatest exile”.
Maxwell Cooter in Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “Griffiths is determined to give us every facet of Paine’s life – but a life so richly lived offers much too much material to be tackled in one play; this might have made a decent mini-series but over the course of the evening, it drags. The first half crackles with wit and passion with some acute political comment. If it had ended at the interval, it would have been a better play … Paine is too good a writer to ignore, so Griffiths has stuffed the play with readings from his works – but detached from the original context they lose some of their power. John Light makes for an attractive Paine – possibly too attractive, as by all accounts he could be an awkward person to know, someone who fell out with all his friends ... As a wry Benjamin Franklin, the narrator of the story, Keith Bartlett gets much of the laughs, and there’s a strong performance too from Laura Rogers as Paine’s part-time lover/collaborator. Plaudits too for Sean Kearns who has to act for most of the play on one leg as Paine’s enemy Gouverneur Morris.”
Michael Billington inThe Guardian (four stars) – “A moving and informative tribute to the man Michael Foot once called 'the greatest exile ever to leave these shores' … Griffiths has the priceless ability to show the power of Paine's ideas and to make history come alive … the corresponding virtue of Dominic Dromgoole's fine production is that it never loses sight of the individuals beneath the epic events. John Light shines out strong and clear as a doggedly uncompromising Paine who never loses his faith in reason and the potential for revolution. And there is first-rate support from Keith Bartlett as the jovial narrator Benjamin Franklin, Jamie Parker as a laconic Jefferson and Alix Riemer as Paine's French translator, helpmate and lover, who stuck with him to the last. Adorned with rousing songs by Stephen Warbeck, this is an intelligent historical spectacle packed with contemporary resonance.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “The dramatic problem is that Griffiths comes too close to idolising a man who was the foe of idolatry … The complexity that marked his Occupations and Comedians, meaning the ability to bring vividly to life opposing sides of an argument, is less often on show: vestigially in a row between John Light’s intense Paine and Philip Bird’s authoritarian Burke, most strongly in Paine’s debates with James Garnon’s swaggering Danton. Yet, with Keith Bartlett’s Ben Franklin as a humorously observant narrator, Griffiths’ play has impressive sweep. The production, which is by Dromgoole, fills both stage and yard with turbulent figures, catching the excitement of the era. The private Paine needs more attention, but time makes that difficult; anyway, it’s the public Paine that matters here. The result is a salutory reminder of his eloquence, his integrity, his still-relevant fears and foresight, and his passionate belief that beggar, slave, every human being deserves respect, attention, care - and love.”
Henry Hitchings in Evening Standard (two stars) - “A New World … feels politically noble yet dramatically stunted. It’s a play of incessant exits and entrances, punctuated with big statements. For instance, at the heart of Tim Shortall’s design is a bulging golden globe, symbolic of the Age of Enlightenment’s opulence of opportunity … Dominic Dromgoole’s production is a mix of bold flourishes, closely worked incidents, picayune interludes and mess, amid which Paine’s character never fully comes to life … Although John Light suggests Paine’s unmannerly, sardonic, dangerous qualities, his performance feels too modest, a few outbursts aside, and his accent wanders curiously. There is decent work from others: Jamie Parker, whose multiple roles include Jefferson and Marat, and Dominic Rowan, imposing as George Washington. But James Garnon’s Danton is an overblown roisterer, all locker-room virility and garlicky charisma. And the important lines - those most freighted with political substance - are highlighted like the key arguments of a PowerPoint presentation.”
Tim Walker in the Sunday Telegraph (five stars) - “A New World … symbolises everything that this unsubsidised and all-too-often underestimated venue is about: it's big, bawdy, hugely ambitious, jaw-droppingly original and imbued with a tremendous sense of fun. It's also executed, as everything always is under Dromgoole, with faultless professionalism … John Light plays Paine with an interesting tranquillity and stillness which contrasts with the frenetic action that goes on all around him for the three hours that the production runs … Tim Shortall, the designer, has fashioned a versatile set cluttered with old globes and printing presses which capture the spirit of the times … Shortall invests the proceedings with some of the good looks of Les Miserables ... The dialogue is pacy and often very funny.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent (three stars) - “No modern dramatist has wrestled with the issues raised by revolutions more keenly than Griffiths. But in this piece, his talent for sinewy dialectics can't come into its own because the opposing arguments aren't allowed a sufficiently forceful hearing. Paine's bitter encounter with his sometime friend and great adversary Burke, for example, is prematurely terminated here. There are exhilarating stretches though. John Light's fine Paine commands attention as a dogged, one-man awkward squad. And the hairs stand up on the back of your neck whenever his works are directly quoted, bringing home how words can change worlds, and how our own world still lags shamefully behind the hero's hopes.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (two stars) - “Lightweight that I am, I once again had a ball at Oliver! and felt as if I were in purgatory during Griffiths’ history lesson which lasts an interminable three hours. Although we are supplied with explicatory narration from Keith Bartlett as Benjamin Franklin, it’s often damnably hard to follow what the hell is going on in A New World and work out who everyone is. Once we get to France, there is an excruciating outbreak of comic ’Allo ’Allo! French accents and the show is cursed throughout by a mixture of unfunny jokes and earnest lecturing that puts one in mind of a history teacher desperately trying to be popular with his class, and failing miserably. By the end, and certainly not helped by John Light’s curiously buttoned-up and unrevealing performance in the leading role, I didn’t feel that I knew much more about Paine than I did at the start. Both play and Dominic Dromgoole’s tiresomely busy, jocular production are a well-meaning, spirit-sapping mess."