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Liberty (York & tour)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Glyn Maxwell’s verse play, Liberty, makes the transfer from London’s Globe to conventional theatre with surprising success. Hints of the Globe performance style, notably the entertaining puppet show dialogue with the audience that segues from interval to Act 2, remain effective. On the other hand change brings definite gains, particularly in an atmospheric lighting plot (Paul Russell); interestingly enough, it’s the lighting that carries the concluding moments of the play.

The plot, loosely derived from the Anatole France novel, Les Dieux ont Soif, concerns itself with six characters in Paris in the year 1793 – or, as the stage banners proclaim, Year 1 of the Republican Era. All friends, acquaintances or lovers, the six are emblematic of differing attitudes to the Revolution: the men a devoted Jacobin, a worldly Girondin and a kindly ex-aristo, the women a fervent revolutionary of 1789 out of step with 1793, an aspiring political power-broker and a naïve young woman who cannot separate human relations from politics.

The structure is somewhat unbalanced by the fact that a quarter of the play is taken up with the opening picnic scene, light-hearted, flirtatious, at first somewhat confusing in terms of characters and relationships. Maxwell’s intention to move this scene from its position half-way through the novel to “start at a bright time of holiday” makes sense, but the leisurely follies contrast oddly with the pace with which the characters’ situations change, though, of course, such sudden reversals of role and fortune were not uncommon in the days of the Terror.

Guy Retallack’s production is stylish, visually pleasing (designer Ti Green) and full of zest, but neither text nor performance encourages much involvement with the characters – not that, as far as I can recall, empathising with characters was ever high on Anatole France’s agenda. John Bett exudes a rumpled charm as the aristocratic philosopher/puppeteer and Ellie Piercy’s giddy Eloise affectingly explores a world she doesn’t understand, but Edward Macliam (not helped by having a wine bottle as a recurrent prop) is hardly an inspiring spokesman for moderation. Like many of the characters, including David Sturzaker’s dourly convincing Evariste, the small-time Robespierre, he is at his most powerful when given a self-justifying speech with the audience as revolutionary tribunal.

Touches of epic theatre, like the banners and William Lyons’ excellent score (accordion and hurdy-gurdy to the fore), work well, but the tone remains more ironic than heroic or tragic, satisfying enough intellectually, not without humour, but emotionally detached.

Ron Simpson

NOTE: The following ONE-STAR review dates from 3 September 2008 when the production was in London.

If you really want to know what it’s like to feel trapped, not to say incarcerated, in a theatre, go see Liberty by Glyn Maxwell. It’s a punishing, mostly incomprehensible verse play about a group of revolutionaries during the Reign of Terror, based on a 1912 novel by Anatole France called Les Dieux sont Soif - and most of us felt sympathetically parched by the interval.

It manages to make one of the most exciting and dangerous periods in European history sound like a tea party in Theydon Bois. Which is more or less how the play begins: at a picnic in the countryside outside Paris in 1793, a few months after the execution of Louis XVI. Robespierre is in charge of a committee of public safety and Marie Antoinette is in prison.

Unfortunately, the struggling artist Evariste Gamelin (David Sturzaker) is not locked up with her, but free to bore us rigid with his take-away idealism and half-baked oratory. Gamelin becomes a repressive magistrate and supporter of state violence, though it’s hard to follow, and then swallow, how this comes about and why we should care that it does.

His girlfriend Elodie Blaise (Ellie Piercy), shy enough to be re-christened “Modesty” perhaps – is a humble seamstress continuously upstaged by an overbearing actress, Rose Clebert (Belinda Lang), who’s a butt for a stream of humour-free references to the National Theatre.

By the second act, Evariste is apparently closing down the newspapers and the theatres while an eccentric old duke, Maurice Brotteaux (John Bett), takes to puppetry with about as much success as I would take to unicycling on a trapeze with a fire-eating dwarf on my head. Why director Guy Retallack hasn’t cut this farrago by ninety minutes and given us a salon-style comedy of visionary revolutionaries – “The Importance of Seeing Unrest”? – is a mystery as impenetrable as most of the dialogue.

Actually, Maxwell’s not so mighty sickle and hammer are wielded in limp and turgid verse, or so it would appear from a glance at the script. There is no discernible metre, nor any fizz, bounce or beat to the relentless triviality of the dull lines. There’s a couple of chorus numbers and rumbling tumbrel en route to the guillotine, but nothing that doesn’t make you yearn for a revival of Danton’s Death or a return visit to Les Miserables.

- Michael Coveney


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