LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE
by Caryl Churchill.
Arcola Theatre 27 Arcola Street E8 2DJ To 7 August 2010.
Mon-Sat 8pm Mat Sat 3pm.
Runs 2hr 10min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7503 1646.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 19 July.
Bright revival of undervalued play.
This Light first shone in the afterglow of the radical 1960s, when books by historians like Christopher Hill had illuminated an earlier radical decade, the 1640s and the English Civil War. Yet Caryl Churchill inevitably finds new light to cast, and a confident dramatic form in which it can play.
Max Stafford-Clark’s scrupulous 1975 premiere for his Joint Stock theatre group, on Hayden Griffin’s minimalist boards, emphasised the urgent argument mixing Christian nonconformity and political radicalism, which met in the central digest of the 1647 Putney Debates with their arguments over property rights and universal male suffrage (the tract which gives the play its name appeared in 1648).
In her second act, Churchill shows the realities behind the arguments of the privileged; arguments which, in revolutionary tradition, were followed by force and oppression.
Any half-good revival of this piece would be welcome. Yet, while Polly Findlay’s production starts half-good it soon becomes a lot more than that. Its raised acting areas stand around a central crucifix-shape, an earth-filled hollow – apt enough when religious dispute runs alongside mothers unable to feed their babies. The deft switch to modernised costume after the interval reminds the play was born in the early years of the Northern Ireland Troubles.
Women’s sufferings have a prominence, thanks partly to the writing, but also to tough economical performances by Helen Lymbury and Michelle Terry. Lymbury has an apt decisiveness in male or female character, including at moments when hard decisions need making.
And Terry is outstanding, as established clergyman, commanding then insinuating to keep his position, as nonconformist laity arguing with calm determination for women’s role in the congregation of the faithful, or a mother literally ditching the baby she cannot feed. It’s a performance demonstrating how, in such writing, external restraint matched to understanding produces intensity.
Churchill contrasts the Putney end to act one – with Cromwell advocating establishing a Committee – with the disorder ending the second act, as religion dissolves into licence amid the flurry of social upheaval. The Big Society of the day, perhaps, its complex spirit caught in this revival of a remarkable play.
Cast: Philip Arditti, Jamie Ballard, Christopher Harper, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Hemena Lymbery, Michelle Terry.
Director: Polly Findlay.
Designer: Hannah Clark.
Lighting: Matthew Pitman.
Sound: Gareth Fry.
Composer: Tim Van Eyken.
Musical Director: Danny Saleeb.
Movement: Caroline Salem.