One of two new plays in the Globe’s 2008 Totus Mundus season, Liberty by Glyn Maxwell is based on Anatole France’s 1912 novel, Les Dieux ont soif (or The Gods will have blood).
Focusing on six characters from the novel, the play is set in Paris in May 1793, four years after the start of the French Revolution at the height of the ‘Reign of Terror’. It tells of Evariste Gamelin (David Sturzaker), a young revolutionary whose own life parallels that of Robespierre. So, as Robespierre opposes the death penalty as a youngster before going on to lead the ‘Great Terror’, Gamelin starts as a quiet idealist (even unable to stop focusing on the cause at a Sunday picnic), but quickly mutates into a pitiless man when offered a seat on the National Convention.
Liberty asks whether the ‘Great Terror’ was a turning point in the French Revolution that might otherwise have taken a different course, or whether it was an inevitable and unavoidable product. With almost every scene adding a new point, its strength lies in the way that it explores this complex question, which leaves us increasingly unable to categorise the revolution as good or bad. We are also left questioning the rights and wrongs of justice, and wondering whether the furthering of freedom can sometimes be counter-productive.
For example, when Gamelin joins the National Convention, though supposedly accepting that he is there to dispense justice, not mercy, he acquits the first person he tries. Since the letter of the law would find him guilty, Gamelin is forced to resort to subtle legal arguments to justify a decision which in reality he reaches because (like the audience) he deems the death sentence too harsh for the crime.
This calls into question the justness of the law, and whether it is always right to follow it blindly. Similarly, when Gamelin’s wife, Elodie Blaise (Ellie Piercy) realises she could face trial if her former lover proves to be a conservative, she asks whether political tendencies should ever have a bearing on the relationship between two individuals.
Liberty thus reveals the problems that arise when youthful idealists with black-and-white ideas suddenly put these into practice. Gamelin soon becomes merciless on the Convention, and every character whom, in theory, the revolution should have aided finds themselves locked up and facing the guillotine. So actress, Louise Rochermaure (Belinda Lang), and Maurice Brotterux (John Bett), an old aristocrat who had always served the poor kindly, are harangued by soldiers for putting on a puppet show. That they should not be allowed to express themselves or make a living is supposedly in the name of freedom.
However, if we are ever left frowning at the revolution, Gamelin declares that the ancien regime killed and imprisoned each year more people than the revolution ever did. The very fact that we find such high death tolls shocking reveals how successful the revolution was as getting us to where we are today, for before they were the norm.
A major weakness, however, is that the play appeals very much to the head rather than the heart. It interests us through the challenges that it lays down, but (surprisingly, since most face death) we never really feel the pain of any of the individuals. Consequently, the many strong performances on the evening – Sturzaker, in particular, is an effective Gamelin – feel incidental to, rather than the making of, the drama.
This may, however, be a point in its own right. The individuals matter less because every revolution will find itself with a Robespierre or a Gamelin, which makes the latter just one of a type. If so, this may be the greatest hint that Maxwell ever gives towards an answer to the central question, was the ‘Great Terror’ inevitable?