There are two sorts of scenes that the Globe Theatre, with its intimacy and sky-open space, relishes: light sexual comedy, and big dramatic set pieces. The second new play in the Globe's 2008 season, Glyn Maxwell's Liberty, set towards the end of the French Revolution, contrives to present a collection of each of those.
The comedy comes before the interval, the time mostly taken up by a picnic at which a frivolous young seamstress, Elodie (played with winsome gaiety by Ellie Piercy) tries to distract a dedicated but callow young revolutionary, Evariste Gamelin (David Sturzaker), from his speechifying and philosophising. Trying to set him back on course is the scheming Louise (Belinda Lang), while also providing distraction is his more sophisticated, and less driven, old friend, Philippe Demay (played with show-stealing charm by Edward Macliam).
The dramatic set pieces come later, as Gamelin rises, pushed by Louise, and inevitably falls, as the turbulent final paroxysms of the Revolution play themselves out. Besterman has a particularly fine piece of wildcat, spitting defiance in the face of the guillotine, and the pathos pulses from a prison scene between a hardbitten bit-part actress Rose (Kirsty Besterman), and Maurice, the Lucretius-spouting former duke for whom she's surprisingly but believably fallen. And the Globe, as it always does, proves the perfect setting for a fine tumbril scene – as the cart rolls among the inevitably discomforted groundlings.
This is a story based on Anatole France’s 1912 novel Les Dieux ont Soif (usually translated as "The Gods Will Have Blood"), although the dialogue is all the playwright's own, written in unrhymed iambic pentameters — but not obtrusively so. And the play is marked by a fine stream of one-liners; my favourite was when Demay complained once that, "public safety was trying not to put your feet in horseshit".
Yet there are problems with the plot France provides – chiefly that within the first five minutes you'll know exactly what fate each of the characters will finally meet – who will be the survivor, who the sacrificial lamb, who the passionately convinced to the end. The cast does a fine job of making them individually deeper than stereotypes, but their fates are clear beyond any suspense.
This play's other fault is length – it is a pity that playwrights and directors seem to feel that epic subjects demand epic lengths. The three hours would be greatly improved by being cut to about two and a half – a particular mercy for the Globe's hard-on-the-butt seating, and for the groundlings in this wintery London September.
Still the finely-judged production – the way in which director Guy Retallack has the young Gamelin make his first passionate speech from the wobbly stage of a ridiculous picnic basket is indicative of the attention to detail in the staging – very nearly carries off the length and the weakness of the story. And there's the extra power that comes from the inevitable modern parallels – just as in the novel's time it was marked by its author's involvement (on the right side) in the Dreyfus affair, so the promises now of perfect liberty and justice — "once the emergency is over" — have painful resonance.
There's sex, there's passion, there's politics here, in a nicely, if a touch too calculatingly, assembled mix – and the opening night audience tonight certainly left satisfied, if chilled to the bone. It's late in the season for a Globe premiere – but worth getting out the winter woolies to make sure that you don't miss a cockle-warming production.
The production continues, in rep, until October 4.