You couldn’t wish for a more timely revival than Caryl Churchill’s passionate and provocative 1976 play about political turbulence Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (NT Lyttleton Theatre), directed by Lyndsey Turner.
We are transported back to the 1640s where in the aftermath of a bloody and brutal civil war, England stands at a crossroads. Food shortages, economic instability and a corrupt political system threaten to plunge the country into darkness and despair.
The Parliamentarians who fought against the tyranny of the King now argue for stability and compromise, but the people are hungry for change.
For a brief moment a group of rebels, preachers, soldiers and dissenters dare to imagine a New Jerusalem in which freedom will be restored to the land.
This is a play about hope, failed revolution and the betrayal of ideals and could feel resonant for audiences familiar with widespread disillusionment with conventional political parties. Indeed Churchill makes obvious connections between 17th century and modernity, without overlooking their differences.
Although a demanding work, it is also an enlightening one and in the middle of the play are sections of the actual 1647 Putney Debates, when Oliver Cromwell (Daniel Flynn) had the opportunity to allow everyone to vote but withdrew, fearing it would lead England into a ‘confusion’.
Director Lyndsey Turner keeps the lengthy, rather dry debates that form much of the first half, fresh and illuminating.
The play could be considered a documentary drama but we do gain a revealing insight into individual characters – a vagrant woman (Ashley McGuire) put on trial and humiliated and reduced to selling her last rags, a butcher (Steffan Rhodri) railing at a rich man and effectively us too for eating meat while children go hungry, the Millenarian youth (Joshua James) recounting a state of spiritual ecstasy how he gave all the money he had to a beggar, not to mention a grass eating visionary (Tristan Growelle). They make you wonder just how bygone those times are and what their political legacy is. The committed professional cast of 18 is augmented by 44 members of the NT’s community Company, all of whom add an impressive sense of scale.
Furthermore ES Devlin’s set is stunning with its gold mirrored ceilings and vast banqueting table, piled with silver candelabra and tiered fruit and wine, at which the gowned nobles sit and, later, on top of which the revolters trample around.
This story, then, of the men and women who went into battle for the soul of England is essentially concerned with how democracy can be achieved and provides an evening of drama on a grand scale.
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire
Plays in repertory until June 20 2015.
Box office@ 020 7452 3000
Last modified: April 7, 2021