Light Shining in Buckinghamshire

Caryl Churchill
Strawberry Vale Productions
Arcola Theatre

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The title of Churchill's play, originally presented by Joint Stock in 1976, comes from that of an anonymous Digger pamphlet of 1649: Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, or A Discovery of the main ground, original Cause of all the Slavery in the world, but cheifly (sic) in England.

The play is set during the English Civil War in 1647 and shortly after when Diggers and Levellers in Cromwell's New Model Army were struggling to establish what they though would be Heaven on Earth

At its heart are the Putney Debates of October-November 1647, held in St Mary's church by Putney Bridge, at which soldiers and officers of the of the Army, including delegates elected by the men of the various regiments, and some civilians discussed the future of England. Topics covered whether they should continue negotiations with the King (executed two years later) and who should be given suffrage. While the levellers insisted that every man should have a vote, the generals, Oliver Cromwell himself and Henry Ireton (who wanted to bring in a constitutional monarchy), were adamant that voting rights would remain limited to those with property, issues on which Churchill particularly concentrates.

Many of those recruited to the Parliamentary side believed that they were genuinely fighting to change society, a society in which the poor starved and were whipped from parish to parish. We may not whip the poor today but as the gap between the rich and those in poverty grows ever wider the situation seems horribly familiar. Churchill shows how these people were driven by different brands of religious fundamentalism. A quarter century after the play was written that now feels like a frightening warning of what could happen here as what most of us think of as a secular society is challenged by faith groups with very different ideas from our liberal tolerance of others.

Many of these seventeenth century religionists were convinced that God's kingdom would begin on Earth in 1650 with Christ's second coming and saw this as an excuse for license while Churchill also presents the emerging idea of right and wrong as something determined by the individual, not God given precepts, even though wrapped up in the idea of God within the man.

This is a fascinating play that presents a pivotal point in English history when it might have been possible to create an idealistic commonwealth. Instead the actual Commonwealth that was established reinforced old privilege and pushed England one step nearer to modern Capitalism. One the one hand there are those who believe in equality and brotherhood, on the other those who will never relinquish their hold on property and privilege. Churchill does not argue their cases but shows us how those with power control the situation and the confusion of those whom they control.

Polly Findlay's in-the-round production, opens in darkness with the roar of war. Candles, shadows and psalm-like chanting create a powerful atmosphere but it makes its points with crystal clarity and Hannah Clark's set matches the content with a simple metaphor: the earth of England laid out in a cross..

There is no attempt to push the implicit contemporary message, however much one may sometimes think of contemporary politicians. The production creates a seventeenth century ambience that adds to our understanding of the historical situation but the Puritan tunics do seem to almost unnoticeably give way to more modern looking shoes and trousers as the play moves on and, at one moment, with everyone in shirt and braces, we seem to have flashed forward through Tolpuddle and the Chartists pointing towards today.

In its colour- and gender-blind casting six actors play at least a couple of dozen individual roles delivering sharp characterisation whether in impassioned argument or abject sorrow. Among them are Kobnah Holdbrook-Smith's calm and smiling Cromwell and his fiery butcher, crying out against the excessive consumption of some when others starve; Michelle Terry's Ireton, unshakeably determined to preserve his own interests; Helena Lymbery's fiery soldier delegate and touchingly confused infanticide; Philip Arditti's junior officer whose heart is with his men but follows the orders of his superiors; Jamie Ballard's Ranter preacher and Christopher Harper's common soldier. They all play with such projection that you never miss a word in a production that does credit to all concerned.

As one character remarks, did Christ come to earth again in 1650 but no-one noticed? There was certainly the opportunity for real change. When will it come again? Could such egalitarianism ever flourish in what this green and pleasant land has become today?

Runs until 7th August 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton