Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (Caryl Churchill) Arcola Theatre 17 July

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Uninformative picture of some cast members

The Arcola Theatre was quite well-filled with an audience predominantly of decaying lefties (like the present author) for the Saturday evening performance of Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play about the  English Civil War, Putney Debates, and the unhappy fate of the Diggers and Levellers.  The extreme (sandal-wearing) faction of the audience had some difficulties with the cross of fresh earth that had been let into a concrete floor so that the Diggers could dig.

It wasn’t very good, in all truth.  I enjoyed the hymn-singing, Biblical references and extracts from the Putney Debates, but otherwise….

So we began with some vignettes of life on the eve of (perhaps at the beginning of) the Civil War, making approved points about the subjection of women, poverty of the masses, landowners and established church joining in Old Coruption, etc.  As far as I can see there are two ways of doing this:  like Bulgakov in The White Guard, you can create a convincing picture of peacetime life so that the audience knows what is being lost or changed, or like Brecht in Mother Courage you can present your scenes explicitly framed and alienated, like the small panels round the edge of the icon.  Here Churchill was trying to do the second in the manner of the first, and it didn’t work.

Also the characters were wearing black and the lifesuppressing black curtain was in place round the edge of Arcola Studio 1 (I actually touched it–Eurgh!!), so the whole action rather failed to detach itself from the gloom.  Then we had the Putney Debates, and I cheered up–the actors took off their black tops to reveal white shirts, and they had some interesting words to say.  At the end, Cromwell said they would refer the Agitator’s paper to a Comittee–a sure sign of the coming triumph of satanic evil, one has to agree.  I thought that Michelle Terry did a good job as Henry Ireton here, needing as she did to overcome the twin disadvantages of being a girl and defending the rights of property.

So I was encouraged enough to stay for the second half.  Where people were wearing odd bits of (dark coloured) modern clothing and military gear.  So the Diggers and Levellers were suppressed, the army had the choice of killing Irish or going home.  Then we had the kind of scene that Dostoevsky did so well (and on this evidence Ms Churchill would be advised not to attempt at all) where characters filled with millenarian expectation declare that Christ is coming, God is within them, sin is no sin, while desperately drinking and whoring.

So after Dostoevsky we had Orwell and the new Parliamentary squire becoming the same as the old Royal Squire and explaining that Cromwell would no longer oppose enclosing the commons though he had in the past; and then  Voltaire–Chacun doit cultiver son jardin, which the Levelling soldier Briggs did by learning to eat grass.

Well, I thought that Michelle Terry was getting a handle on her various roles.  Philip Arditti took the Frenchified diction of the class oppressor a bit too far.  Apart from the complaints listed above, I found that once more the oversized amorphous drabness of Arcola Studio 1 dissipated the drama into dullness, and I didn’t believe a lot of the text–I would have expected, for instance,  the characters to back up almost every assertion by a Biblical reference.

Gala Evening Special Offer 21 July

I have also received the following from the Arcola:

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Curchill

For just £30 (normally £48), you can join special guest Caryl Churchill at the Arcola Theatre for an evening of theatre, discussion, music, food and drink.

The evening includes:

• Food and Wine

• A ticket to see the show

• An introductory talk on the period by Geoffrey Robertson, QC

• Tony Benn and Kate Mosse in conversation

• Music from Billy Bragg

With fantastic catering provided by Leila Latif, and free flowing wine from the Swan, at Shakespeare’s Globe, the evening kicks off at 6.30pm, before the show will start at 7.30pm.

The play tells the story of a group of ordinary men and women struggling to find a voice in the face of unspeakable suffering, who cling to the belief that they will be shown a glimpse of an unspeakable, transcendent glory. Churchill herself will be in the audience to see the next installment from director Polly Findlay, and the stellar creative team behind Thyestes (Arcola) and Eigengrau (Bush Theatre).

“Polly Findlay showed real insight and imagination in her production of my translation of Seneca’s Thyestes at the Arcola. I enjoyed her use of the space and the detail of her work with the actors, and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does with Light Shining.” – Caryl Churchill

Your support will go directly to making the production possible.

Light Shining Gala Night

Wed 21 July at 6.30pm

To book – simply call Arcola Box Office on 02075031646 and quote ‘Subscriber Gala Offer’.

Tickets to this special event are entirely subject to availability.

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