Trevor Griffiths has given himself no easy task in trying to pack the eventful, continent-crossing life and times of 18th century egalitarian Thomas Paine into one play.
A programme note says the playwright’s first draft was pushing six hours long; visitors to Shakespeare’s Globe will be pleased to hear that Dominic Dromgoole’s production comes in at three hours, yet such is the epic nature of Paine’s life that it feels like six would have been more appropriate, if a little tough for spectators.
Given the scale of the subject matter, in these three hours Griffiths can only give us the broad brushstrokes of the life of this writer, free-thinker and radical, starting with the Englishman’s arrival on the shores of America, through the publication of his first major work, Common Sense, his involvement in the American War of Independence alongside George Washington, his return to Europe where he is hailed as a hero by French revolutionaries, to his demise back in America after his stubbornness and unwavering atheism have lost him many friends.
It is a huge amount to cover and inevitably not all of this can be explored in great detail. The story moves so rapidly that at times it may be hard for those without prior knowledge to understand how the peaks and troughs in Paine’s life are connected; why, for example, this revolutionary who fought for the rights of the French people should end up, after the revolution, in a French prison. Some other aspects of Paine’s multi-faceted life, such as his involvement in engineering and bridge building, are just touched upon in one line or so. However, as a history lesson into the life of this extraordinary man, Griffiths’s play provides a valuable starting point.
John Light has the difficult task of leading this large cast as Paine, present on stage for nearly the duration. He has strong support in particular from Dominic Rowan as Washington, James Garnon as the comically arrogant French revolutionary Danton and Alix Riemer as the sweet yet shrewd Carnet, the Frenchwoman who translates Paine’s seminal work, Rights Of Man, and shows an obstinate dedication to the man she falls in love with, even when everyone else has deserted him. Keith Bartlett, too, stands out as Paine’s friend Benjamin Franklin, who narrates the play with aplomb, even in death.
There are some deft comic touches, not least the cast’s ability to turn themselves into statues, as well as several funny moments created by the two children in the play.
Dromgoole’s production – watched over last night by former Globe Artistic Director Mark Rylance – is played out on a stage that must conjure the vast amount of locations that Paine visits during these years. A huge globe, appropriately, sits at the back of the stage, a symbol of the physical journey taken by Paine and the worldwide reach of his influence, both of which are encapsulated upon one small stage on London’s Bankside. It is certainly no mean feat.