Lyttelton, National Theatre
In the week before the most unpredictable General Election in a generation, Caryl Churchill’s humane, enlightened Light Shining in Buckinghamshire comes like a welcome blast from the past. Featuring events, impacts and debates surrounding the English Civil War, it couldn’t be more apt even if, born as it was in the heady theatrical turbulence of the 1970s when like its political predecessor 300 years earlier, rebellion, the collective will and processes were all up for grabs, it’s dramatic design does seem now from another age.
Light Shining is nothing if not a discursive talking shop, sometimes to its dramatic cost. But how good to hear the principles of democratic government poured over and argued with such passion.
A new nation was indeed struggling to be created and Churchill’s incorporation verbatim of the speeches from the Putney Debates – the three days in 1647 when the officers and soldiers of Cromwell’s Model Army hammered out the meaning of democracy for every Englishman (women would have to wait a little longer) – shows us what A Bill of Rights might have looked like had they succeeded.
We owe much to the Ranters, Levellers, Diggers whose revolution failed but whose vision of the new Millenium, its promise of Christ’s return and with it a more equal, just society, has formed the bedrock of what we now take for granted but in serious danger of being eroded. Indeed there were times when parallels with today came as a shocking reminder of current complacencies.
Turner’s production with, true to the spirit of the piece, its large community cast, is a wonder, full of striking visual imagery, opening with a massive table groaning with food surrounded by cuffed and silked grandees on top of which Churchill’s cast of vagrants, butchers, preachers and common people dream and dispute.
The contrasts and division in the population couldn’t be more marked and heightened by Helen Chadwick’s plangent chorales of psalms and plainsong.
All in all, a powerful lesson from history, didactic to be sure but one that repays attention highlighting as it does those missing voices, as true today as ever, of the exploited, the underpaid, the poor.
First published in Reviewsgate, May, 2015
Plays to June 22, 2015