At his inauguration, President Obama quoted a passage from the stirring speech that George Washington had read out to his demoralised soldiers before the battle of Trenton. He did not acknowledge that the script-writer was the extraordinary Tom Paine, the radical Norfolk-born polemicist who fought on the American side in the War of Independence, and became a deputy in France where he furthered the cause of the Revolution, but rotted in prison for months when he opposed the execution of the king.
Trevor Griffiths rescues Paine from such high-profile anonymity with a three-hour stage epic. Premiered in Dominic Dromgoole's teeming, lucid production, A New World follows the hero from his arrival in America in 1774 to his lonely funeral in New York City 35 years later. Proceedings are overseen by a chorus of Mongrel Folk and a humorously perceptive narrator-figure in Keith Bartlett's Benjamin Franklin. The volatile temper of the times infects the whole of the space, erupting in ugly brawls in the groundlings' yard.
Yet the results are frustrating as well as inspiring. Paine, as a dramatic protagonist, suffers from the drawback of incorruptible integrity and scant inner conflict. Awaiting execution, James Garnon's witty, ebullient Danton raises a wry glass to Paine's "terrible innocence". But this is not an innocence that is ever felt to be a potential public liability. Its only victim appears to be Paine himself as he meets the unenviable fate of the stubborn truth-teller in those periods when revolutionary regimes resort, through paranoia, to the repressive methods that they were designed to banish.
No modern dramatist has wrestled with the issues raised by revolutions more keenly than Griffiths. But in this piece, his talent for sinewy dialectics can't come into its own because the opposing arguments aren't allowed a sufficiently forceful hearing. Paine's bitter encounter with his sometime friend and great adversary Burke, for example, is prematurely terminated here.
There are exhilarating stretches though. John Light's fine Paine commands attention as a dogged, one-man awkward squad. And the hairs stand up on the back of your neck whenever his works are directly quoted, bringing home how words can change worlds, and how our own world still lags shamefully behind the hero's hopes.
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