A girl comes onto the stage and proclaims herself- liberty- a man carries her off to have sex with her. Liberty is a harlot coming to the magistrate of the republic- an image which carries us away from the idealised images of La France at the height of her revolution and into the darkness of the career of Robespierre, the error of the terror to come. Liberty is a play about that process- the process where the word changes from a thing of beauty to a harlot to tyranny, from an instrument of enlightenment into an instrument of torture. All of its characters go through the historical experience of revolution, destruction and disaster. In different ways they tell the story of the French Revolution- a Revolution whose consequences we are still two hundred years later struggling to understand and whose course still we are struggling to chart.
Let us open the scene then, a muse of fire would bring forward now in you in a meadow in the French countryside- but I hope to awake for you a wooden O, with actors and actresses sitting upon it as though they were at a picnic. We have our characters- there are basically six. Three men, three women- two younger of each sex and two older. We have the young French reformer, the girl whose frivolity he loves, whereas she loves his seriousness- we have the artist and the actress, the aristocrat and the lady who believes that connections can tame the beast of terror. The year is 1791 just before the terror, just before the axe of the guillotine. After the events of 1789- after Mirabeau and moderation have quitted the French stage- the one literally, the other metaphorically. We see the rise of our young French idealist to power- elevated by the lady he becomes a judge, takes as his wife the girl, Elodie, who loves him. Across Paris, the terror stalks pursuing the rest of the characters- guilty of innocent it lashes them. Even Elodie, as she becomes an object of suspicion for her lover- who loves the incorruptible heart of revolution Robespierre and the friend of the People, Murat more than he loves a perishable and sinning piece of flesh and blood- becomes a victim. Artless to the end, she is driven from her wits- whilst others have a more literal severing from their brains to contend with.
For us to care though- these characters have to matter. I've only named one of them- and that is because thanks to a good performance from Ellie Piercy, she did matter to me. Elodie because of the vitality of Piercy's performance comes across in the first half as a real live girl- someone that you could imagine falling in love with- and the fact that our young revolutionary is no surprise. Her evolution though does not work so well- we do not see enough to show us how this vital and strong young woman is destroyed, ground down by a revolution she does not care for. She slowly vanishes and the tale of her evolution is dealt with perfunctorily. Our young revolutionary does well too- but conversely he is more beleivable as the play finishes- at the beggining he is just irritating. By the end, he has become terrifying- the servant of a passion that goes beyond human love- to craft a world perfect enough for a supreme being to want to inhabit. He asks at one point about the world that Christ might live in- and his world is one suited to Gods not to human beings- so perfect that it becomes immoral. The acheivement of this play is that there are two halves- one whose masterspirit is Elodie- and whose spirit is of youthful exuberance and a morality centered on people not principles, the second is the world of revoluiton- whose master spirit is our young revolution- centered as one of the characters says upon 'the people' and not upon people, upon principles and perfections. Its not a hard decision to choose between them.
But equally nor is the transition between them managed well. The play is an adaptation of a novel by Anatole France- the canvass would suit a novel. The mould of personal and political would work in the longer format. But a play has to choose and this falls between being a story and a tract. There are fine performances here- Maurice an old friend to our revolutionary and an aristocrat is played touchingly. But there are also very stagy performances- voices which are too nasal to work in any format. Some characters- Louise our Lady- are managed without a hint of nuance. The writer in my view loses control of his story because he wants to experiment with the form- too busy constructing iambic pentameters he forgets the virtue of telling a tale. I wanted to like this play and I liked features of it- its message is right- but somehow it lectures where it should be quieter, its lessons are not profound enough and its soul is split. Good performances cannot save what is more important a good script.