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The Bacchae

We, The People

By • West End
WOS Rating:
Perry Como used to sing a song which deployed the names of the various states of America in a completely banal and meaningless way: “What did Delaware, boys?” “Wait right there, Alaska…she wore a brand New Jersey, that’s what Della wore,” and so on.

I managed to survive the last hour of We, The People - a mind-numbingly tedious epic by Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness) about the making of the American constitution - by trying to remember the whole song while various actors stood up in their frock coats and periwigs shouting lines like “North Carolina: Yes!” or “Virginia: No!” I nearly joined in: “South Bank: Who Cares?”

These mummers were delegates at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, gathered together by George Washington (John Stahl) to hammer out the details for a fledgling republic four years after the War of Independence. Schloss’s debate is uncoloured by any telling characterisation or any discernible continuous narrative; Charlotte Westenra’s static production feels like one long deadly committee meeting of the sort you decided to avoid years ago.

In the first act, we have cannon fire in Massachusetts as a few radicals are mown down by the federal army; we are fed a few jolly scraps on the genius, inventions and eccentricity of Benjamin Franklin (John Bett) – and a good speech in praise of older women; and Washington is borne to the stage on a handsome white horse.

And that’s it. If only the cannon had set fire to the new Globe as it did, long ago, to the old. If only Benjie had blown himself up with his chemistry set, or George fallen off his horse (or the horse delivered an impromptu steaming message to the groundlings).

For these episodes are followed by hours of throat-clearing, paper shuffling and plonking of elbows on green baize tables that would try the patience of the most dedicated box-ticking pedant. The activity of the officious, interfering Globe ushers in their Lenten mauve tunics became rivetingly interesting in comparison.

Artistic director Dominic Dromgoole has admirably extended the Globe’s potential as a people’s pulpit in new plays by Howard Brenton and Jack Shepherd, so he can be forgiven an honourable failure. The subject matter is fascinating, and you feel you want to learn more.

But the show lacks any spark or momentum, and is full of good actors – Robert Bowman as the Virginia visionary James Madison, Trystan Gavelle as a randy peg-leg from Pennsylvania and Paul Rider as Daniel Shays, the rebel hero – visibly mired in their material.

- Michael Coveney


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