In his book State Of The Nation: British Theatre since 1945, Michael Billington mentions a number of plays which, whilst seminal at the time, have not as he gracefully puts it ‘aged well’.
He posits Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play Light Shining In Buckinghamshire as one of the few exceptions to this rule; so why then is it so under produced? Perhaps to right this wrong The Arcola is housing Polly Findlay’s sturdy yet impassioned production that more than highlights the timelessness of Churchill’s text.
Set in Putney in 1647, Light Shining In Buckinghamshire takes a comprehensive look at the debates and tussles for power within the Puritan New Model Army. The ‘Grandees’ Oliver Cromwell and his right hand man Henry Ireton are at logger heads with the Agitators and Levellers, ordinary officers representing their regiments.
The revelation that nothing is to change for the poor is being brought home with devastating force to the Agitators. Their liberal and (even in this day and age), forward thinking Agreement of the People is refused at every turn as the ‘Silken Independents’, worthily represented by Ireton, refuse to acquiesce to the idea that all men are equal, fearing that to do so would attack the very foundations of a landowner’s right to hold property.
It is not only the political infighting and squabbling that rings so true in today’s coalition landscape, but also Cromwell’s betrayal of the ideologies he held whilst in opposition. This is something that any modern voter will painfully recognise.
Churchill avoids allowing the text to become nothing more than dry intellectual debate by tempering the theory with a rising amount of emotional and religious fervour. Whilst societal revolution is imploding, a religious revelation shines through as a hippy mania of free love and reclaiming sin grips the increasingly maligned Agitators.
Findlay brings out the desperation of the ordinary men and women at play here with a painfully acute flair and her staging fully encompasses the audience as members of these community meetings.
Performed with a full-blooded zeal by a stellar cast, including Kobna Holdbrook Smith and Michelle Terry, at moments this production is truly hypnotic; Helen Lymbery’s final ecstatic seduction into religious escapism is an almost Bacchic conversion and one we all feel whipped up in. After all their effort, we are left watching people scrabbling for a saviour; soaked in the sombre realisation that these moments of revolutionary potential, whether they be in 1647, 1997 or 2010, invariably come to nothing.