When Shakespeare's Globe put on a stinker, they certainly don't do things by halves. We the People, Eric Schlosser's account of the drafting of the American Constitution, is not so much a play as an endurance test.
Two hours and 45 minutes long, it offers all the pleasure you would get from sitting on some interminable committee where you don't have a vote, or even the right to speak. There's a distinguished English dramatist who lists, I think, "committees" as one of his recreations in Who's Who, and some of his less successful plays tend to illustrate that taste. He might be in seventh heaven here, but for the rest of us, it's purgatory.
The poorness of We the People is puzzling because Schlosser, a journalist best known for his book Fast Food Nation, is the author of a rather good and arresting play called Americans, which Dominic Dromgoole, now artistic director of the Globe, successfully mounted when he ran Oxford Stage Company. Set at the turn of the 20th century, that earlier piece used the assassination of President McKinley by an anarchist as the way into a sharp disquisition on the American political scene at a point when the republic was turning into an empire. Though written before September 11, it had, when seen in the aftermath of that atrocity, a certain predictive force.
We the People has the potential to be as interesting and as tartly topical a piece. It is set in fascinating times, as the victors of the American War of Independence are facing up to the fact that, unless they revise the original Articles of Confederation (which made it difficult for Congress to raise taxes and troops), the fledgling republic is at risk. The issues up for discussion are deep and enduring and tackle the problems intrinsic to democracy: the principles of representation; the separation of powers; safeguards for the minority; the limits of presidential power etc. Should a slave count as three-fifths of a man?
But the play, which mixes transcript with some woeful original dialogue, fails to give the delegates sufficient individuality. The relentless courtroom debate feels curiously inert and demonstrates, by default, the excellence of the editing in the Tricycle's tribunal dramas.
There are some very good actors in Charlotte Westenra's large cast and they struggle valiantly to inject a bit of personality into proceedings. But I fear there may be evenings when they outnumber the audience – a paradoxical pre-dicament for a play about popular representation.
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