tue 28/02/2017

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

Revival of Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play about radicals in the English Civil War is an acquired taste

Making a point: Steffan Rhodri as grassroots idealist SexbyMarc Brenner

The trouble with the general election is that while everybody talks about money, nobody talks about ideas. We know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. This might seem to be a triumphant demonstration of the essential pragmatism of the nation, yet there was a time in English history when ideas mattered. And when they were passionately discussed, and bitterly fought over. I’m referring to the English Civil War of the 1640s, and its aftermath when king Charles I was beheaded, an era explored by Caryl Churchill in her 1976 docudrama.

Now revived in a large-scale production by Lyndsey Turner, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire offers a series of snapshots of events during those turbulent years when the English Revolution threatened to turn the world upside down. As civil war destroyed law and order, the sudden absence of authority allowed a huge variety of Levellers, Diggers and Ranters; preachers, agitators and chancers; radical soldiers, poor peasants and wandering beggars, the opportunity to make their voices heard.

The past, however strange, can
still speak to us

Instead of showing the battles of the great and the good, Churchill focuses on all the people that lived, struggled and fought in the wings. As such, the play deals a body blow to the idea that the civil war was just about Cavaliers and Roundheads, and shows history from the point of view of the underdogs, for whom events were as much about class war as about bringing down the monarchy.

There are two highpoints: during the great Putney Debates of 1647, the low-class political radicals took on their masters and commanders in a discussion about voting rights and social justice, with the Levellers arguing in favour of universal manhood suffrage while army leaders such as Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton supported the status quo. As the theme of a revolution betrayed unwinds – and Cromwell, onetime revolutionary soldier, turns into the imperialist grandee who subjugates Ireland – the play sympathises with the grassroots idealists, such as Rainborough, Sexby and Wildman.

The second highpoint is when the Diggers, led by Gerald Winstanley, occupy St George’s Hill near Weybridge with the intention of owning property in common and working together on the soil. Such scenes are a timely reminder that some traditions can be resonant, and that, however strange, the past can still speak to us today. This communitarian aspect is helped by the fact that the play’s multiracial cast is joined by members of the National Theatre’s Community Company, who fill the stage with their songs and hymns.

Since, from a Marxist perspective, the 17th century marks not only the origins of capitalist work discipline but also sexual repression, Churchill carefully gives some of her female characters a feminist voice. The concentration on the underdog results in a riot of ideas, expressed in the religious jargon of the time, and a glorious feeling of what it must have been like to live during a time of rapid social and political change: from angry clashes with sanctimonious piety to millenarian fantasies that crash into bitter disillusionment.

But beware. If you don’t already know the difference between Seekers and Shakers – or have a pretty good grasp of 17th-century history – this play is liable to go well over your head. The production’s eclectic mix of costumes suggests a long heritage, one that animated the late Tony Benn and inspires the current Billy Bragg. It is also worth pointing out that the 17th-century Freeborn Englishman (the Scots, Welsh and Irish don’t get a look in) now comes across as atrociously insular, xenophobic and obsessed with God.

Turner’s staging, beautifully designed by Es Devlin, features an enormous oak table, at which the rich gentry and churchmen feast at the start of the play but are usurped by parliamentarian lawyers and scribes by the end (the privileged winners writing history). From a huge cast (pictured above), I liked Sargon Yelda (Rainborough), Steffan Rhodri (Sexby), Daniel Flynn (Cromwell), Leo Bill (Ireton), Joshua James and Trystan Gravelle. Alan Williams plays a variety of down and outs. Elizabeth Chan and Ann Ogbomo suffer the agonies of poverty. This drama of ideas also, occasionally, engages the emotions.

Comments

This is comfortably the worst play I have seen at the National in 30 years of regular attendance.I like ideas plays but this one lacks all theatricality. . It's a piece of agitprop, over-wordy and humorless. I felt sorry for the actors. One would get a better script from reading the telephone directory! Why it wasn't strangled by the NT top brass, early on, beats me! The only redeeming feature was a wonderful opening scene ( like an old master painting) :after that, it was downhill all the way. I saw a preview, earlier this week. It's a short play but a significant number of the audience left at the interval..

It seems to me over the last few years that the NT has become Middle England's "safe night out", concentrating on people pleasers like the Alans (Bennett and Ayckbourn), and marquee names in Shakespearean productions. I want to see the company produce more challenging work like this, Danton's Death, Edward II and Children of the Sun. I attended a preview last Friday and would describe the reception as "tepid" from an audience that was mainly white, middle-aged and middle-class. As far as I'm concerned if they want a diet of falling asleep in their stalls and star names, they can stake out the forthcoming Branagh Company.

I am middle aged, middle class and white and tried not to fall asleep during this production. I will go to the Branagh season. I also enjoyed Danton's Death and I read the Guardian! Putting on "challenging' but poor plays like this is the road to empty houses and bankruptcy. Look at what happened to ENO after their challenging but unattractive programming!

I agree... an utterly tedious play. Only the vocal arrangements and the design and lighting redeemed (vaguely). Sorry Caryl...

The dullest play I've ever seen. Some of the acting was pretty cheesy and the costumes were all over the shop.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters