The time is 1650 and revolution is in the air. Caryl Churchill’s play is about Ranters, Levellers, Diggers and the gentry. Or in other words, the English Civil War, seen through snapshots of normal people whose lives were uprooted by it.
The people marched on London and rebelled against King Charles I, but the revolt’s success left a vacuum, with no clear path forward and no guarantee that change would happen, leaving men who fought for liberty to question what exactly they had won.
With a core cast of 19 and, on top of that, a community company of 44, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is a mammoth of a production and a true ensemble piece. The staging is similarly epic: the first curtain goes up on a huge slab of a dining table which then becomes the stage. At the centre sits a spectacular roast pig gazing out on the audience, complete with apple in mouth. Helen Chadwick and Ben Price’s music sets a beautifully eerie tone, with choral songs performed by the whole cast.
One highlight was when we arrived at the famous Putney Debates, discussions which took place in the wake of the Civil War and deliberated how the country should be run. Everyone agrees about elected representation but some argue that only rich property owners should have the vote as only they apparently have “an interest in the kingdom”. With an election around the corner, it strikes a chord to be reminded how hard democracy was fought for. Churchill gives us a picture of the country at a cliff edge; the world might be about to turn upside down.
Not knowing a huge amount about the Civil War or the Putney Debates, I found myself wanting more context of what was going on, more information about just who these Levellers and Ranters were, and what they stood for. (Side note, the Ranters preached basic communism and also drank, danced and had sex extravagantly. The Levellers were the radical group which emerged from early opposition to King Charles. I’d recommend getting a programme.)
However, this is partly the point. This play is about the story of normal people in the midst of these events and the effect the war had on their lives. Rather like a Greek drama, what might be considered to be the key events happen off stage.
The cast, which included Steffan Rhodri and Nicolas Gleaves, were strong across the board as were the large community company. Joshua James stood out for me, with a captivating ability to make archaic, biblical lines sound like any throwaway comment from today.
Joe Caffrey’s character likened the country to a sea – the wealthy happily swimming around while the poor drown. The question we are prompted to ask ourselves is, does anything really change?
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is playing at the National Theatre until 22 June. For tickets and more information, see the National Theatre website.