Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, by Caryl Churchill

A staging of the 1647 Putney Debates poses inconvenient questions about political means and ends, says Liz Schafer

April 30, 2015

Source: Marc Brenner

Baroque decadence: the powerful staging opens with a ‘ghastly meat-heavy feast’, filled with items that are more decorative than life-sustaining

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire

By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Lyndsey Turner
National Theatre, London, in repertory until 22 June 2015

Cromwell’s solution to the challenge of open debate is to kill it by committee. He appears so reasonable that he might well strike a chord with senior management in many universities

Probably most famous for Cloud Nine (1979) and Top Girls (1982), Caryl Churchill is something of a Living National Treasure in British theatre, although her political activism – supporting “Troops Out” campaigns, writing Seven Jewish Children – A Play for Gaza (2009) as a fundraiser for Medical Aid for Palestinians – ensures that she remains a bête noire for some. Yet she is never a predictable playwright: my first encounter with Churchill was the Royal Shakespeare Company doing Softcops (1984). I went expecting feminism; what I got was an all-male cast, buckets of Foucault and a discussion of surveillance that should terrify Google junkies.

The National Theatre has now revived Churchill’s 1976 play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire – which focuses on the Civil War Putney Debates of 1647, when members of the New Model Army tried to thrash out a constitution – just in time to remind audiences that quite a lot of people had to die before most of us in England got the vote. Lyndsey Turner’s production, supported by an enormous cast, moves the play a long way from its low-budget, group-devised, 1970s agitprop origins. Things were so different then: students had grants; Jim Callaghan was prime minister; unions had clout; and the post-secular had not been theorised. But Soutra Gilmour’s costumes stress how some things never change: poverty is still grinding people down, and several characters look dressed for dossing down outside the National or Waterloo Station. In stark contrast, the Royalists are pickled, placed in their historical moment by their Cavalier costumes.

Light Shining was originally devised by a company of eight and then performed by a company of six. Churchill’s published text specifically asks for characters not to be played by the same actors each time they appear, and several characters were cross-cast by gender. Restaged with a cast of 18, plus the 44-strong supporting Community Company recruited from SE1, there’s no need for cross-casting. So while in the 1976 production the Putney debaters Nathaniel Rich and John Wildman were played by women, in Turner’s production they are, more conventionally, played by men. A whiff of Les Mis meets Sacred Harp, as the massed vagrants burst beautifully into song, also softens the performance of poverty.

Turner’s production opens with a powerful image: the entire cast sit around a table that spreads across the whole stage. The table is covered with grotesque food, dressed meat, suckling pigs, items that are more decorative than life-sustaining. Above, a mirrored ceiling reflects the baroque decadence below. Es Devlin’s set is often clever, sometimes cumbersome, but the second half opens thrillingly as the cast assemble on what appears to be a traditional wooden stage. The cast then attack the floorboards, break them and dig them up, revealing earth underneath; the Diggers – or, as they preferred to be called, the True Levellers – are cultivating St George’s Hill, Cobham (today a posh golf course surrounded by a 24-hour controlled-access residential estate, with security guards).

The play’s staging of excerpts from the Putney Debates offers time-travel hustings. How do those extraordinary speakers – Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton, Thomas Rainborough, Nathaniel Rich, Edward Sexby and John Wildman – compare with party leaders today? The debaters speak with passion, conviction, and they certainly don’t do soundbites; despite Churchill’s extensive editing, they do go on a bit. But when the house lights come up and the speakers address theatregoers directly, we know that audiences at the National Theatre are unlikely to respond – tempting though it is to shout out “Give Women the Vote” (even the Putney radicals thought that a step too far).

Cromwell’s (Daniel Flynn) solution to the challenge of open debate is to kill it by committee. He appears so reasonable that he might well strike a chord with senior management in many universities. What can you do when time is short and a whole load of maverick, stroppy thinkers insist on debating the finer points of governance, claiming that they have a right to voice an opinion and even to vote? While they jaw-jaw, Charles I is trying to escape/REF 2020 is already on the horizon. Cromwell’s solution is to close down the debate and deploy the New Model Army to Ireland, a point that would have had even more bite in 1976 when IRA bombings were such current news.

As Churchill shows a fictional radical corn merchant, Star (Nicholas Gleaves), climb down off his soapbox and morph into a squire, compromise segues into corruption. Star’s slide is a common pattern among politicians (and not unknown among academics), but his insistence that the Diggers must be removed so that poor people can be fed – large fields of corn are the way forward, not squatters farming common land – reads starkly nearly 40 years on from the play’s first performance. Star is not only capitulating to capitalism and promoting enclosure by a different name, he is also setting the path towards agribusiness’ wrecking of the planet. As the disenchanted soldier and agitator Briggs (Trystan Gravelle) puts it, the poor suffer because “a few people eat too much”. The move from the opening image of the ghastly meat-heavy feast to this Ranter’s still relevant denunciation allows no one in the audience to feel guilt-free.

In staging this particular slice of 1640s history, there’s a risk of suggesting that it isn’t worth bothering with trying to bring, find or shine much light in Buckinghamshire or anywhere else. You don’t need to be an English Civil War aficionado to realise that the light shone by the English revolutionaries did not herald a new age of even universal male franchise, the end of poverty or the abolition of private property. But Gerrard Winstanley’s extraordinary pamphlets, including Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, are still read, the spark of light is not quite extinguished – even though the play ends forlornly with a Beckettian group of misfits waiting for God and arguing over whether they might have missed Him. The programme encourages us to think of later resistance movements – Occupy, the Chartists, the Suffragettes. Perhaps because I will be voting in Runnymede and Weybridge, a constituency about to suffer from a bout of Magna Carta-itis, I wish the programme had given space to the extraordinary Diggers2012, who are facing eviction so that Runnymede can sparkle for the Queen’s visit on 15 June to mark what VisitSurrey straplines as “Celebrating 800 years of the Free World”. The Diggers2012 Facebook page is the new pamphleteering; today Winstanley would be on social media, getting trolled but still putting his ideas out into the public domain.

The multicultural casting of the production helps to throw into relief the fact that many daring thinkers of the 1640s were nevertheless unassailably racist. Characterising all Royalists as evil Normans and all Parliamentarians as good Saxons, the initially radical Star, a carefully modulated performance by Gleaves, also has a whiff of Ukip. And his tactics for recruiting disaffected young men to fight in God’s army certainly have contemporary relevance.

The production is sometimes cautious in the face of the glorious pottiness of eccentric spirituality – one Ranter drifts in the direction of Rik Mayall’s deranged character Kevin Turvey. But Adelle Leonce as Hoskins, a female preacher, is grounded, inspired and constantly defiant as she shouts out her incendiary, unpopular, batty but sometimes compelling ideas.

And as politicians on the campaign trail posture, tweet and photo op, it’s a good moment to remember John Lilburne, Rainborough, Winstanley and the likes of Hoskins with their inconvenient questions. Who can speak and who cannot? What is (an) election? Who benefits?

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