The French Revolution and its aftermath have inspired some wonderful literature from such literary giants as Dickens and Carlyle. With that pedigree, it must have seemed a good idea to commission a respected historical playwright to use it as a basis for one of the modern offerings in the Totus Mundus Season.
For whatever reason, Glyn Maxwell whose The Lifeblood was one of our Best Fringe Plays in 2004, has failed to meet the challenge with this long, lifeless play that neither captures the period nor finds a good angle from which to view it.
Liberty follows the journey of a cheerless ideologue, Evariste Gamelin played by David Sturzaker. We first meet an artist seeking to become a politician at a picnic in what was known as the month of Meadows in Year I of the short-lived revolutionary calendar.
His fellow revellers are an ill-matched bunch: Elodie (Ellie Piercy), an embroidress, wants the love of Evariste; Rose (Kirsty Besterman) is a chorus girl with higher ambitions and Philippe (Edward Macliam) is an unprincipled fellow artist.
By far the most intriguing pairing are the oldies. Belinda Lang (who finely delivers a feisty valedictory speech) plays Louise, a political changeling desperate to meet the People's Friend, Marat, while John Bett has fun as a louche Duke transformed into a sweet-natured puppet-maker.
Their brief Edenic idyll soon comes to grief as the Revolution gets serious under "Robespierre and (the) nine lunatics in charge of France".
As Evariste becomes an increasingly unbending magistrate and continues to climb the greasy pole, his friends are incriminated one by one until, inevitably, he too falls like dead Marat and Robespierre, allowing a hopeful ending.
This 2¾ hour drama certainly provides an odd take on the Revolution with its reactionary, pro-Royalist stance, portraying the revolutionaries as akin to the Russian dictators of half a century later.
Despite odd flashes of humour, Liberty lacks the liberté, egalité and fraternité that it should be celebrating, focusing on half a dozen characters who rarely deserve our sympathy.
The romantic interest somehow fails to spark, while the politicking is only periodically gripping, telling us no more than so many worthy predecessors on this popular period in French (and world) history.
Cecily Boys reviewed this production on tour in York
Reviewer: Philip Fisher