A New Life is about the life of Thomas Paine and is by politically radical English playwright Trevor Griffiths, whose stage work peaked in the 70s but who has since been working as a screenwriter. His biopic of Thomas Paine fell through, so the Globe offered him the chance of reworking it for the stage. (2009 is the 200th anniversary of Paine's death.)
John, Caroline and I went on the last night when the Globe offered groundling places for £5 each. It was my first time at the Globe as a groundling! - Exhausting! - standing was hard on my hips - one really has to fight to keep one's sightline free, and the actors jostle you frequently (this production used the pit to the fullest extent for crowd scenes)
The playwright and a few celebrity actor guests were there, also politicos and lefties, school groups and tourists. An interesting audience. We thoroughly enjoyed the play, despite its faults. Knowing next to nothing about Thomas Paine, it was interesting to learn more (Griffiths wove in many quotes from Paine's works).
The structure though was exhausting. Three hours on your feet is quite tiring - the first half told the whole story of the American Revolution, so it had a self-contained story arc - at the break one could assume the play was finished. But no - the second half took us to France for the French Revolution (another virtually completely self-contained story arc, with different characters). John seriously suggested leaving at the interval, but Caro and I were keen to stay to the end.
It was all fascinating, and the production and acting were wonderful (Dominic Dromgoole directed), and the audience was terrifically engaged, but the structure of the play let it down as a drama. It was very 'biopic' - just so much raw chronology on display. For me, not really a major problem as it was interesting to learn about the character but this certainly was no A Man for All Seasons or even Amadeus, let alone Shakespearian history. However, individual scenes and the dialogue were highly entertaining, and the production was energetic, imaginative and flowing. The entire cast deserves high praise (the majority play several characters each) but special mentions have to go to Keith Bartlett as the narrator (Benjamin Franklin) and John Light as Thomas Paine himself - in the thick of the action for a full three hours.
The play proposed Paine as a naive idealist whose radicalism was betrayed by both revolutions he helped inspire - the American Revolution compromised by wealthy individuals and corporations (Paine was very anti-slavery and a total egalitarian) and the French ignored his message of non-violence (he voted against the execution of Louis XVI). Finally he returned to America, where he was completely sidelined by puritanical society (he was an aggressive atheist). His funeral was attended by only 6 people, two of whom were freed slaves.