Well, what a tedious play. How do some playwrights manage to do this, take a great period of history and wring every inch of life out of it to leave a dry and unexciting husk, a pale shadow of what it could have been? A few years ago a play at the Globe had the same effect; it was about Chartists – the nineteenth-century radical group who called for political and educational reform – a really exciting group that fascinated me at school. Yet somehow it was the most mind-numbingly dull three hours I’d ever spent in a theatre and worse had been standing in the pit the whole time, thus I resolved never to stand at the Globe again (just in case). The play was so bad I clearly wiped almost every trace of it from my mind, including the title.
Fast forward a few years and the same thing has happened again in this National Theatre revival of A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Carol Churchill’s 1970s play about radical groups during the English Civil Wars (there were officially two wars with a lull in the middle). The critics have loved it and I have no idea what they’re thinking. I studied this period for A-Level – the extraordinary 15 year personal rule of Charles I, before being forced to recall Parliament in 1640 for money, leading to a couple of years of power play as the two sides wrangled over evil councillors, monarchical privileges, religion and even the attempted (and illegal) arrest of MPs. In 1642 war was declared between the King and his own Parliament, an event of extraordinary significance in British history, which resulted in new forms of warfare and, most divisively, the trial and execution of a divinely-appointed monarch by his own people.
So as you can see exciting stuff. Churchill’s play understandably shies away from the high-level story which has been rehashed many times to focus on the experience of the people who trade one kind of hierarchy for another, and the emergence of radical groups such as the Diggers and Levellers who wanted to create a more equal society based on purer religious lifestyles. There’s no plot exactly, more a series of monologues and debates that consider the rights and freedoms of the individual, all designed to emphasise the timeless disappointments of those who pit themselves against established society. But therein lies its major flaw, without even the slightest narrative drive or rounded characterisation, the endless talking just leaves you cold.
Now, the National’s other philosophical play, Man and Superman, was a joy to watch because there’s enough story to frame the discussions and the whole thing zips along which keeps you entertained throughout. But despite the great design, Churchill’s play fails to create any sense of drama or the danger and excitement of the era. It includes direct extracts from The Putney Debates in 1647 where the New Model Army, fresh from victory over the King, discussed the kind of society they wished to create. It’s a crucial event emphasising the power of the army at this time to determine the future (and the removal of the monarch was by no means inevitable at this stage) as well as the emergence of a more radical spirit among the men who had fought. Yet, the scene was underpowered and failed to convey the passionate beliefs of many of the speakers, the words were there but without feeling. These were men were uniquely positioned to shape Britain’s political and religious future, not the local WI sharing sponge recipes.
In the second act we get a comparative debate scene among some of the people now living freely on the common land who largely debate the possibility of the Second Coming and notions of individual communion with God. Religion was a hugely important element of the Civil Wars particularly Charles I Arminianist or high church views which many feared as a step towards returning to Catholicism, and the imposition of a new prayer book was an important trigger for war. Yet this debate also suffers from a meandering approach and while the mix of characters brought together (ex-soldiers, working men and vagrants) should have made for an interesting look at the consequences of war for the individual, it was as unengaging as the rest. Admittedly by this point I had all but lost the will to live and was cursing myself for not having left at the interval (which I never do) but I’ve rarely seen a show where I cared so little for what was being said or for any of the characters. It’s not really the actor’s fault, apart from the lack of drive they were all emoting and making lots of sincere gestures, but it just didn’t amount to anything.
I think the overall problem here is that the play itself has tried too hard to steer clear of the main political events of these years, but in doing so just doesn’t give enough context or story to sustain momentum for 2 hours. Even me, who knows a fair amount about this period, found it hard going so I can’t imagine how anyone with no idea of the chronology of the wars would get through this. Or perhaps having too much pre-knowledge makes it worse? I knew how exciting and interesting these events should be and could only be disappointed by how utterly tedious this was.
Admittedly the design is good and a lot of critics have praised Es Devlin’s approach – but there’s a case in point, few critics mention the design in their reviews if they’re too busy enthusing about the play and acting! The action takes place on a giant table where the ruling class, comprising the King, lords and clergy are busy feasting while others toil to put food in their mouths. Then, symbolically the table is pulled to pieces to reveal a field of soil and the new ruling class of Puritan scribes take their seats around the edge instead. Although the wage bill for non-speaking parts must be enormous and at times they look like the cast of Les Miserables, it effectively suggests the continuing poverty of the masses regardless of who’s in charge.
This is the sort of play the critics love, they label it ‘challenging’ and ‘undramatic’ to imply some higher form of theatre but actually it just means boring and poorly structured. This completely lacks atmosphere and a proper feeling for the exciting, dangerous and frighteningly uncertain times in which it was set, so I’d save your money. The one thing this play had over my previous bad experience at the Globe – I may have been bored, but at least this time I got to sit down!
A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is at the National Theatre until 22 June. Tickets start at £15.