By any measure, Thomas Paine had a remarkable life. A writer, editor, inventor, soldier and philosopher, he was a leading light in the American War of Independence and the French Revolution and a thorn in the flesh to all sides.
It’s a pity then, that Trevor Griffiths’ play on his life is such a mess. 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 play is split into two halves, the first primarily dealing with the War of Independence, the second with the French Revolution and its aftermath. 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.
The second half offers us more of the same: there’s little sense of any development of character and the events of the French Revolution are passed over in minutes – there’s also a romantic sub-plot that is too much of a distraction. Characters like Robespierre and Marat appear for just minutes and while Danton (a rumbustious performance from James Garnon) has more of a presence, the events are telescoped together too quickly to have any sense of what’s happening.
There’s also a lot of padding. 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. Light seems to have little of the fire and none of the cussedness. 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. There are also some good songs, courtesy of composer Stephen Warbeck.
We can see why Paine is an attractive subject for Griffiths. Opinionated, stubborn with a refusal to compromise, he’s a perfect fit for a playwright whose socialist vision seems so out of step with the time. The whole of A New World is a paean to the power of the writer. “Never wrong a king or a writer, they both will make you sorry for it” as Griffiths says. This play is a marvellous tribute to the power of words but it’s less of a tribute to a remarkable man – more’s the pity.