The political landscape of Britain is in upheaval. There are debates on electoral reform, the rise of smaller political groups calling for radical change, and an attempt to overthrow the beleaguered political powers currently in place. Throw in a few nods concerning the rights of immigrants and you might be forgiven for thinking Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is about the current state of our nation and the run-up to May’s election. In fact Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play is set over three hundred years ago, during the immediate aftermath of the English Civil War. Some things, it seems, don’t change.
At its heart lies the Millennium movement and their fervent belief in the second coming; and the play is a tapestry of scenes that weave in the viewpoints, struggles, dreams and hopes of the far left progressive groups – the Ranters, the Diggers, and the Levellers – as they try to bring about revolution in a brief period when everything seemed to be up for grabs. It is the Levellers that gain the most leverage, culminating in the Putney Debates that took place in the autumn of 1647, and in which army commanders (including Cromwell) and the rank-and-file debated the future of the nation, and the Levellers’ manifesto, An Agreement of the People. In this they argued for the right to vote without any property qualification for every Englishman who was ‘free’ – i.e.: to the exclusion of women, servants, beggars and foreigners. (Equality still clearly had some way to go but, for the time, this manifesto could be seen as a new Magna Carta for a new age and today informs the debates over a British Bill of Rights.)
Churchill’s epic and rather sprawling play packs a lot in, and with so many characters it’s hard to know whom to root for. The scenes that take place during the Putney Debates cleverly use text taken verbatim from the transcript of these discussions, and Churchill mixes real and fictional characters to provide an array of disparate viewpoints. With so many voices, it sometimes buckles under the sheer weight of words and its own sense of worthiness but Churchill thankfully lifts it with a regular lacing of wit.
As with many historical plays the audience occasionally gets clobbered with facts, but these moments are off-set by fine performances, and Lyndsey Turner more than competently holds everything together, before she turns her hand to directing Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet later this summer. The star of the show however is set designer, Es Devlin. The production starts with royalists gorging their faces during a supper held around a giant table. This soon becomes a stage itself for scenes involving the workers, who vent out their frustrations at the food shortages, famine and rising unemployment, whilst around them the royalists (feeding from the fat of the land) look on unabashed. The use of this giant table as stage set changes again and again, taking us from the new parliament to the fields of Buckinghamshire with imaginative simplicity; and if the combined forces of Devlin and Turner work their magic again for Hamlet theatregoers are in for a visual treat.
As with all good historical drama Light Shining holds a mirror up to the present, questioning what democracy currently is, and what, indeed, it should be. Come the end there has been a bit of reshuffling at the top and a change of faces, but ultimately the running of the country still resides in the hands of a privileged few and the poor are left at the bottom of the pile, digging in the dirt.
Some things, like I say, don’t change.
Jason Hewitt is the author of The Dynamite Room. His second novel, Devastation Road, set during the closing days of World War Two, publishes 30 July. He is Historia’s regular theatre reviewer.