The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Spring-Summer 2015
In a revolution or civil war it is generally easy to know who and what you are fighting against. But it may not be as clear, or agreed upon, just what you are fighting for.
Caryl Churchill's 1976 assemblage catches England at just that point in the Civil War (1647-9) when people began to ask 'What next?' and to discover they weren't sure.
Through a mix of actual documents, composite characters and imagined scenes Churchill evokes an England realising that changes beyond the removal of the King are in the air, but not at all agreeing what form they'll take or how welcome they'll be.
Churchill looks particularly at three specific areas – religion, government and land reform. While orthodox Puritans believed in an Elect guaranteed salvation while all others were damned, rebellious lay preachers asserted a more loving God allowing everyone the opportunity of grace.
While Oliver Cromwell's revolution was nominally a democratic one, neither he nor most of his followers were comfortable with a call for radical parliamentary reform and something like universal (male) suffrage.
Meanwhile some among the poor and landless, demanding some reward for their part in the war, were taking property reform into their own hands by liberating underused estates and common lands for planting.
If this review is beginning to read like a history lesson, that's because there's a very steep learning curve involved in watching Churchill's play – reading the NT's very informative programme helps – and because the history lesson is pretty much all that the play has to offer.
Neither director Lyndsey Turner nor a hard-working cast, most doubling roles, can disguise the fact that there's really no plot or core narrative to this text beyond the forward movement of time, or that Churchill's characters make speeches at each other, and at the audience, more than speaking with each other.
Meanwhile the playwright's impulse to make use of all her research means that no topics are fully developed and few characters are around long enough to register.
The longest and strongest scene is an edited transcript of the Putney Debates of Autumn 1647, in which the more conservative revolutionaries around Cromwell and Ireton at least listened to the arguments for altering Parliament and enlarging the franchise posited by the more radical wing of Sexby, Rainborough and Wildman.
Daniel Flynn's Cromwell and Leo Bill's Ireton come across as consummate and ever-so-slightly oily politicians, sounding objective while pushing things their way, while Steffan Rhodri, Sargon Yelda and Somon Manyonda capture the fiery passion and very modern sounding rhetoric of the democrats.
Earlier Adelle Leonce has a strong scene as a churchgoer driven by her pastor's dogmatic assertion of predestination to discover a voice and courage with which to assert an alternative and more comforting doctrine.
However strong moments like this are, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire remains less a narrative than a collage of documents and images, more a history lesson than a play.
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