Light Shining in Buckinghamshire** (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: April 23, 2015 in Theatre


Caryl Churchill’s account of the English Civil War from the perspective of a group of insurgent agricultural workers tells a story which resonates still in the modern world. Her writing always seems acutely aware of this and the use of costumes that are not time specific in Lyndsey Turner’s production underlines the point. Yet, still this is a play that is packed with factual detail and its only driving narrative is that given to it by history. The common people are Saxon and they are spurred on to rise up against their Royalist masters, of Norman descent, because of poverty, brutal repression and the belief in a new Jerusalem beginning in 1650. Once the Royalist rule has ended, something has to replace it and almost a third of the first act is taken up with the Putney Debates of 1647, presided over by Oliver Cromwell (Daniel Flynn), in which protagonists line up across the stage and present their cases. The scene draws from actual records, but it is debate more than drama and it seems interminable. The arguments are elementary – in modern parlance, capitalism versus communism, rule of law versus anarchy – and there is a feeling throughout the play that, when Churchill is not using the actual words spoken, the fluency and colour in her writing masks their simplicity. The second act culminates in another long discussion on the influence which religion has in society. Churchill seems to conclude that Christianity had inspired the insurgents and given them a glimmer of false hope, but it is adept at wriggling free from any blame for failure. Turner’s staging, with sets designed by Es Devlin, is spectacular. Act I takes place on a banquet table covering almost the entire Lyttelton stage, with Royalists gorging themselves around the edges; for Act II, the table becomes farm land and the diners are replaced by Puritan scribes; an enormous overhead mirror reflects events throughout. Symbolism abounds, without adding very much to a play which has speaking roles for close to 30 actors and uses almost as many non-speaking extras (referred to as the “Community Company”). Extravagance indeed, but to what end as this is a work which is nearly all words and hardly any action? Occasionally and very fleetingly, some engaging performances emerge – Ashley McGuire and Alan Williams as resourceful vagrants, Joshua James as an evangelistic “gentleman”, Trystan Gravelle as a cynical fighter – but Churchill fails to flesh out their characters fully or to give them strong storylines and they fade back quickly into the mists of Turner’s bloated production. Churchill’s central point is that, here and throughout history, uprisings may disrupt things temporarily, but, for the lowest echelons of society, the status quo returns quickly. In this case, the names and faces of rulers and landowners change, but the poverty and repression continue and even the Monarchy is restored. Churchill’s history lesson is all good and worthy, but her messages would have been more easily digested if she had been able to wrap them in a gripping drama.

Performance date: 21 April 2015

  1. I saw this on Monday and completely agree with you. I was expecting an interesting civil war drama but found it really tedious, which, given how fascinating this period was, is a missed opportunity! Staging was impressive but like you say none of the characters had any depth. Very very disappointing and not a patch on their Man and Superman.

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