Caryl Churchill’s play about the English revolution, a moment in history that could have changed this country forever – imagine, no Jubilee parties and commemorative mugs – but instead sort of fizzled out leaving the French and the Americans to show us how to do it properly.
The staging of Lyndsey Turner’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire production is fantastic and grabs you the moment the curtain rises to reveal the Lyttelton Theatre stage dominated by a giant dining table groaning with man-sized mutton legs and pig heads around which sit upwards of 30 men, gnawing away at the plastic feast, undeterred by the starving masses outside the banquet hall. This stage-sized table later gives way – once we’re got rid of the Norman nobles – to enclosures, then a barren field. Well done set designer Es Devlin and team.
But as well as been a spectacle, the impressive staging is also a bit of a distraction. Churchill’s play was originally performed by six people; in this National Theatre production the cast is enormous – 62 according to Michael Billington’s review in The Guardian, although we counted around 40 actors during the curtain call.
The bulk of the ensemble is made up of the Community Company who provide a large chorus that adds to the theatre of the production. The singing that bookends the play and heralds the Putney Debate scene is indeed stirring stuff. But at the risk of sounding like a philistine, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is wordy and dense, Churchill’s script packed with rousing speeches that demand the brain firing, if not on full, then at least 90% throttle. While the dialogue is often enthralling, it was too easy to get distracted by all that was going on. The group of students next to us, many who didn’t have English as their first language, certainly found the dialogue difficult to follow, squirming and sighing throughout the first half, only for one of them ask his mate in the interval what it was all about. “Robin Hood, I think”, his friend replied.
Well, the disposing of a leader by birthright and taking power and land from the few and redistributing them among the many was one of the revolution’s aims so maybe Oliver Cromwell in green tights isn’t such a ridiculous idea. And a mash-up of Robin Hood and the English Revolution may have been, dare I say, a little more entertaining?
That’s not to say there’s not plenty to enjoy. Churchill’s play focuses largely on the experience of the working classes for whom little changed in the seven years England was without a Monarch and it’s interesting to see history narrated by those who weren’t in power when history was made. There’s also some nice correlation with today’s politics. A focal point of the play are the Putney Debates of 1647 scene that reenact the famous discussions on the constitution and the future governing of England by soldiers and officers of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, lead by the Levellers (so much of this period in history reads like an issue of the NME in 1992). Apparently in the days following the General Election 2015, these scenes received a spontaneous round of applause at the part where they call for electoral reform.
It’s difficult to pick a performance from such a large company, but I enjoyed Daniel Flynn as Cromwell and as the rather less revolutionary vicar who survived the seven monarch-less years with his velvet cloak unblemished. Adelle Leonce was excellent as the vagrant preacher who dares to speak out in church when women are forbidden to. Churchill highlights the plight of women even in this male dominated cast, drawing attention to the complete exclusion of the fairer sex in this revolution and their disenfranchised from life generally as their punishment for Eve’s love of a Granny Smith.
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire isn’t a cosy piece of theatre, it feels old-school in its execution and performance, but it’s well-produced and interesting (that sounds more damming that it’s meant to). Worth a look for fans of history and magnificent staging – just do go expecting any merry men.
by Suzanne Elliott