On a day when the dust was just settling after the results of the latest general election I was sat in the National Theatre watching a play about political turmoil that had its audience backing a seismic change in Parliament.
Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining In Buckinghamshire tackles one of history’s most incendiary periods, when common people not only threatened revolt but rose up to crush a king and a political system.
If director Lyndsey Turner was trying for political point scoring by showing how left wing and egalitarian the NT was then her production failed to sway voters, even if it won over its audience on Friday night.
We’re back in the 1640s of Charles I when the country was on the brink of civil war and partisan groups called the Ranters, Diggers and Levellers lobbied and rallied for reform.
The first thing that strikes you about this production is Es Devlin’s spectacular set which is revealed to the house as the Lyttelton’s vast safety curtain parts to reveal the opening scene.
Most of the stage is occupied by a huge banqueting table, groaning with the finest foods. It is surrounded by royalists and headed, almost in the shadows, back stage, by the king.
Into this feast we meet the protagonists who are fighting for equal rights, for electoral reform, and for enough food to feed the country’s poor.
And that’s the second thing you notice. The programme describes Light Shining as a folk play. What this means is that the audience listens to a great deal of evangelical rhetoric, principally about god, rather than witness any dramatic presentation of events.
What is being said is, largely, laudable but a lot, particularly from characters like Joshua James‘ vagrant, is the sort of Biblical nonsense espoused by the devout brandishing placards on street corners of today. There’s only so much hysterical sermonising a person can take on a Friday night.
One of the biggest reactions of the evening came during a lengthy re-enactment of The Putney Debates when Cromwell, the army, and Levellers, debated the future of the nation.
There was riotous applause and whooping from the floor of the house (us) when demands were put for the present Parliament to be dissolved (before they’ve even settled in!) and for proportional representation to be adopted.
In the second act Devlin’s stage is ripped up for the action to move to St George’s Hill, Weybridge, where Diggers tear into the soil to plant corn to feed the poor (particularly ironic considering the same land is now a gated community for Surrey’s über rich).
The last time Light Shining was performed it was with a cast of six in 1976. Turner’s production features an enormous cast of more than 70.
She doesn’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but it feels like it. Non-professional community actors swell the ranks to play non-speaking parts while an ensemble of pros like Daniel Flynn, Trystan Gravelle, Nicholas Gleaves, Steffan Rhodri, Leo Bill and Alan Williams play key historical characters.
It’s a lavishly presented production but its preaching style is an acquired taste. The singing by the company collective is pretty impressive though.
Light Shining In Buckinghamshire runs until June 22
- Light Shining In Buckinghamshire
Caryl Churchill’s historical folk play, Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, whips up political, social and religious unrest on the National Theatre’s Lyttelton stage by harking back to 1640 England and a country on the brink of civil war.