Power And Democracy 17th Century Style At The National

By Sam Smith Last edited 36 months ago
Power And Democracy 17th Century Style At The National ★★★★☆ 4

Brave New World: The Levellers in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire © Marc Brenner

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

It seems particularly appropriate to present Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire of 1976 at the time of a British General Election. Although it is set during the English Civil War so many of the commentaries it provides on wealth, power and democracy feel as relevant today as they did nearly four hundred years ago.

The play does feature a chronological arc as it witnesses army recruitment during the Civil War, the Putney Debates of 1647, the execution of King Charles I in 1649, the founding of many religious and political sects, and England’s reconquering of Ireland, but it is not primarily a plot driven affair. Instead, it offers a series of vignettes onto the lives of a variety of people (rich and poor, powerful and meek) as they react to a world that has been turned upside down, both socially and politically, by war.

Although on the surface the issues explored may seem alien to us now, they still carry much relevance. For example, while debates in the play concern whether women should actually be allowed to speak at all, gender equality remains a pertinent issue today. Similarly, we may reel at the idea that only those with property should have a vote as they are the only ones with a vested interest in government, but it is still frequently asserted that everyone will prosper if the needs of the wealthy are served. Every now and then today we may believe a politician who promises real change only to be left disappointed, just as the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 saw many things revert to how they used to be (although the progress that had been made left its mark in a variety of areas).

Religion is a highly important theme, with many thinking that Christ will actually come in 1650, but even here the people’s actions can feel as self-serving and human as any we see around us presently. For example, one tramp argues for drinking all of his alcohol on the grounds that it would be a waste if Jesus arrived and he had anything left.

In Lyndsey Turner’s production, Es Devlin’s set presents a box-like area (although the sides remain open) that really draws the eye in. Light Shining In Buckinghamshire may appeal more to the head than the heart, and those who enjoy a strong narrative that enables them to hook into the emotions of one individual as they undergo a transformation could struggle the most with the play. Nevertheless, with superb performances, especially from Steffan Rhodri as Edward Sexby and Leo Bill as General Ireton, this highly accomplished and intriguing piece provides plenty of food for thought.

In rep until 22 June at the National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX. For tickets (£15-35) visit the National Theatre website. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.    

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Last Updated 24 April 2015