A New World - A Life of Thomas Paine

  • Date:
    Thursday, September 3, 2009
    Review by:
    Peter Brown

    Apparently, the first draft of this play by Trevor Griffiths started out at almost a staggering 6 hours in length. Mercifully, it's now down to half that, but still feels long.

    That said, there's a lot to get in if you're going to examine the life of a man whose influence as a writer and political thinker is going to be described adequately. Thomas Paine's books – 'Rights of Man' probably the best known and the widest read, even in Paine's lifetime – changed the political landscape in both the New and Old Worlds. Paine's work included the basis for a welfare state, though it took more than a century to bring it into effect in the UK.

    The play basically starts in the American colonies where British rule is about as popular as swine flu. In spite of his loathing of war, Paine throws his lot in with the colonists against the British. When the job is done, he returns to Old Europe where he is at first welcomed by the French revolutionaries and then imprisoned by them for failing to sign-up to the execution of Louis XVI.

    Narrated by a convivial Benjamin Franklin (jovially-played by Keith Bartlett) 'A New World' has songs and music which substantially add to the flavour of the piece. And Tim Shortall's set design is a kind of work in progress with half-completed elements such as the balcony, and a wooden tower which hints at something being built – or destroyed in the cases of the War of Independence and the French Revolution. And a printing press – where Paine's power really lay – is a prominent feature of the overall design.

    With artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, at the directorial helm, it's a tightly constructed production as one would expect. And if the aim was to provide some of the key moments in Paine's life, the production succeeds. But there are some other devices which are less fruitful. For example, there's a lengthy scene in France which is delivered in French and instantaneously translated to English for those of us with negative linguistic capabilities. But I couldn't hear any of the translation and never got much beyond understanding a couple of words of the speech. It seemed odd when other scenes in France were wholly in English. There were also times when too much was going on. With a cast that seems like thousands, it's not always immediately clear who the characters are and what they are up to.

    John Light has the exhausting task of playing Paine since he's on stage almost for the duration. He also has to portray a 'moderate' without making him seem boring or simply vacuous. Though there were times when John Light did indeed seem too 'moderate', there were a couple of instances when there was real revolutionary fire in his dialogue and delivery, in particular in the scene with his landlady. But Paine's writing needed to be more evident both in the dialogue and John Light's performance.

    Though 'A New World' is thoughtfully written and directed, I never felt totally absorbed or engrossed by it. Hard to fault, it's equally hard to deliver a glowing recommendation of it because the monumental significance of Paine's political writing wasn't realised in the overall power of the play itself.


    What the popular press had to say.....
    HENRY HITCHING'S for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Politically noble yet dramatically stunted." QUENTIN LETTS for THE DAILY MAIL says, "It is hard to boil down Paine to three hours of drama...Playwright Griffiths takes a literal approach, cramming in historical tales alongside earnest scenes of scholarly decency. Paine becomes such a saintly figure that it is hard to accept him as real flesh and blood." ALEKS SIERZ for THE STAGE says, "At a time when the big issues of the day tend to be met with indifference, a good dose of idealism about the possibility of change is to be warmly welcomed." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "a moving and informative tribute...this is an intelligent historical spectacle packed with contemporary resonance."

    External links to full reviews from popular press
    The Guardian
    Production photo by John Haynes

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