There was a lot of coughing going on during Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Caryl Churchill’s civil war piece currently playing at the National Theatre. The play tells the story of the Levellers, the movement that sprang out of the disaffection of some former parliamentary soldiers in the English civil war who wanted to see genuine democracy - including an extension of the right to vote - replace the monarchy rather than Oliver Cromwell’s ‘protectorship’. It’s a huge, vital, exciting part of British history, and obviously very timely in an election year.
It’s a shame, then, that the play is so boring.
The first act, only about an hour long, takes a good half hour of disjointed scene-setting to get going. The second act, of a similar length, starts with a strong first fifteen minutes and then dies into irrelevance. Part of the problem is that the play tries to do too much and so never really does anything well. This is exemplified by the inclusion of a subplot about the break off of the Ranters, an even more extreme faction related to the Levellers, which occupies most of act two. This bears almost no relation to act one, it’s almost like starting a new play with a different cast of characters and a new, jokey tone, and isn't well explained - I only understood who the characters were and why they were important because I’d read the programme notes. The disjointedness in both substance and tone is frustrating and sucks the life out of the play repeatedly. A standalone play about the Ranters would probably be really interesting, but in the context they’re presented in here they’re just a distraction.
None of the play’s problems are helped by its over-conceptualised staging. The action is set on a sort of stage-on-a-stage in the form of a giant dining table surrounded by rich upper class men. The point that the staging is trying to make is as such made with such clumsy un-subtlety that it, too, becomes a distraction. The main cast play multiple roles but these are often not accompanied by a noticeable change in appearance which becomes very confusing very quickly. The inclusion of a fifty-strong community cast (made up of local residents) is laudable, and I understand why this play in particular was chosen for them, but adds nothing. No one from the community cast is given a substantial role or lines, they mostly just form the group of rich men sitting mutely around the table. If anything, such a large cast just makes the piece feel flabby.
The one bit of this play that I did really enjoy was the sequence dramatising the Putney Debates. Using real speeches from the actual debates, which were held within the Parliamentary camp after the Civil War to decide what the new post-monarchy system of government might look like, the half hour sequence given over to this part of the story is genuinely exciting to watch. Simply staged with clear introductions to each of the characters, hearing the actual arguments made to form British democracy was thrilling and it seems to me that there’s such potential in expanding this into a full two hour play just focussing on the Putney Debates and its participants. I think this review would be quite different if that’s what Light Shining in Buckinghamshire had been.
Overall, then, an idea with great potential poorly done. Save your money, there are better things to see at the NT at the moment (clue: my review of Everyman will be up tomorrow).
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is in the Lyttleton at the National Theatre on select dates until June 22nd.