Theatre Review: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

Shine a Light on Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

Light Shining on Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

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. 

Light Shining in BuckinghamshireLyttelton Theatre, National Theatre | Until 22nd June 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre

Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre

Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre

Based on Katherine Boo’s non-fiction book of the same title, David Hare’s new play for the National Theatre feels both epic yet intimate, a play on a large scale that studies small human pettiness that can dominate – and decimate – our lives.

Behind The Beautiful Forevers is set in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi that exists, perilously and illegally, on land owned by the airport. Boo’s book and Hare’s play record the daily life of the residents on this marshy makeshift town that the city’s poor have made home. Day-to-day life is a struggle, many live hand-to-mouth from money made by rifling through the mountains of litter from the airport, reclaiming treasured plastics and metals for recycling. These ‘pickers’, as they are known, sell on their finds to a ‘sorter’ who in turn profits from selling on this trash.

The struggle to survive in this vast shanty town doesn’t overwhelm life’s petty dramas. Amongst the residents of Annawadi are the Husains, a Muslim family marooned between Hindus and Christians, their presence tolerated until they start flaunting their comparative wealth. The family can afford a ‘new’ kitchen thanks to Abdul (Shane Zaza), the eldest son and a star sorter, an expert at extracting the jewels from the rubbish piles in the bags the pickers bring him. He’s a peaceful, quiet boy, constantly despairing at his swearing, gobby mother Zehrunisa (an engaging Meera Syal). She is constantly squabbling with their neighbour Fatima Shaikh (Thusitha Jayasundera), an aggrieved and disagreeable cripple with a sideline in selling in her body. Their rows escalates when the Husains begin building work on their hut and soon pieces of rubble in Fatima’s rice kicks off a series of devastating events.

The production is a fantastic ensemble piece that pits strong characters against each other without tipping over into hysteria. Rufus Norris’s smooth direction ensures the production is even more moving in its evenhandedness, although he doesn’t shield away from the harsher realities; it’s barbaric at times and Shakespearean in its tragedies (and eye injuries). Behind The Beautiful Forevers shines a light on human nature and shows that we’re not always at our best when we’re at our lowest ebb despite what art can claim. It shows that when the world is against you, we often lash out at our neighbours (both physical and metaphorical). As a judge passing a verdict on the Husain’s points out, the poor are squabbling amongst themselves when they should be fighting the authorities.

The cast are all outstanding in what is very much an ensemble piece. As standouts, Thusitha Jayasundera is brilliant as Fatima, thoroughly convincing as a sly, nasty woman while not losing sight of her vulnerability. Meera Syal also elicits our sympathies as the cocky Zehrunisa who is cruelly cut down to size by her neighbours.

While the production deals with heavy themes, there is no agenda to Norris’ production; this is a touching, powerful drama that tells a story both big and small.

by Suzanne Elliott

Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre until April 13th 2015