York Theatre Royal and Touring
Based largely on Anatole France's 1912 novel, Les Dieux ont Soif (The Gods are Thirsty), in Liberty playwright Glyn Maxwell concentrates on six characters from the book. Set during the French Revolution the six encounter idealism that turns to murder and the personal alliances that bring inevitable destruction.
We first encounter them at a feast day picnic, where the naïve young seamstress Elodie Blaise (Ellie Percy) is determined to woo the revolutionary zealot Evariste Gamelin (David Sturzaker). Among their company is the social climbing Louise Rochemaure (Belinda Lang) who is determined to promote Gamelin within the Revolution's hierarchy in order to make connections herself. Meanwhile the old aristocrat Maurice Brotteaux (John Bett) is attracted to the young actress Rose Clebert (Kirsty Besterman), who herself has ambitions to move out of the chorus line and on to centre stage. Bringing them all together is Phillipe Demay, a pragmatic former artist who, at the beginning of the play is on the Committee for Public Safety. As Maurice wittily observes there was a time 'when Public Safety meant not stepping in the horse shit in the road'.
As the months begin to turn and 'Year One' of the French Constitution of 1793 turns into the blood bath that was the Reign of Terror, Gamelin's star rises in the courts, as he sentences citizen after citizen to the guillotine. At home with Elodie, his dogmatic ways turn her from a carefree young woman to a terrified submissive, dressing in the colours of the revolution and trying in vain to recite the laws of the Republic. As the number of arrests increase and the friends each begin to fall, their limited time tests the reality of their principles to the limit.
Amongst Ti Green's lofty set the dates really do fall day by day - as coloured flags painted with the dates of the revolution are each pulled down one by one. Behind them are three tall doors, which provide the entrance to Gamelin's judicial work place, Maurice's prison cell and eventually each character's spotlighted downfall as they are questioned and convicted. Paul Russell's memorably atmospheric lighting provides the shafts of light that pour down into the prison, the summer's day on which the friends first picnic and the side lit pool of light in which they are finally interrogated.
Whilst the acting and directing are faultless in this supremely crafted piece, it is the writing that somehow leaves one with rather more 'head than heart'. The ideals of the French Revolution and the cold, hard, driven reason which inspires these characters leaves them little time for personal attachments. In the matters of the heart, Ellie Percy stands out as the winsome ingénue Elodie, who falls for the unflinching ideologue, powerfully played by David Sturzaker. However the unconvincing love of Rose Clebert for the rumpled, elderly Maurice, fails to find sympathy from the audience, no matter how beautifully each character is played by Besterman and Bett respectively. Belinda Lang never disappoints as the magisterial Louise; however again the writing gives us little opportunity for insight into her character.
It is small wonder that the destructive and dramatic events that made the French Revolution famous, driven on by a great weight of masses, bloodthirsty for change, feels under-represented here in six minor characters. With a stage 'filled' with three actors alone it is hard to see the weight of public opinion that could change in a minute with a powerful speech and result in the death of a previously popular public official. However Gamelin's final speech is a powerful statement for the freedom of the future standing, as it were, on the terrorists of France's past and makes for an interesting scheduling from York Theatre Royal alongside Chris O'Connell's ZERO in the studio.
While this might not be the Globe Touring at their finest hour, this is certainly an absorbing production for all historians, albeit that it leaves something to be desired for those looking for more humanism than history lesson.
Reviewer: Cecily Boys