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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Ph: Marc Brenner

"I would fain know what we have fought for." That is the trenchant question raised. That is the challenging thought voiced by the aggrieved 17th-century revolutionary Thomas Rainborough in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. And his words reverberate down the centuries as the National Theatre revives Caryl Churchill’s radical history play (written as a chamber piece in the 1970s).
As staged by Lyndsey Turner, this production features a multitudinous cast: a 62-strong company, including dozens of community performers who potently choir en masse. Meanwhile, Es Devlin’s visually stunning set design starts out as a giant banqueting table, like a still life glistening with aristocratic silverware and heaps of victuals. That’s rapidly swept bare, transforming into a political rostrum for Puritans and, finally, into a field of peat-dark earth.
Light Shining contemplates the English Civil War and what happens in its wake, King Charles I being turfed off his throne only for schisms to open up within the Roundheads' victorious New Model Army. Churchill presents initial glimpses of the discontented poor joining the anti-Royalist ranks, fired up by non-conformist preachers and agitators who anticipate Christ's second coming and an epoch of utopian equality.
Then we leap to the post-war, 1647 Putney Debates, where seismic changes to governance and suffrage are being deliberated. Daniel Flynn’s quietly intense Oliver Cromwell – not yet the nation’s Lord Protector – is seeking to curb the most idealistic egalitarians, especially Rainborough (Sargon Yelda) and his allies known as the Levellers.
The last stretch of Light Shining moves beyond the quashing of the Levellers to trace – through the interregnum years – the footsteps of other astoundingly groundbreaking but ultimately dispersed splinter groups, such as the Diggers who claimed the common land was theirs to cultivate.
It is a mite ironic that the National Theatre’s own new leadership structure has just suffered some turbulence, with AD Rufus Norris’ chief exec resigning, apparently because of a lack of clarity about who was in charge. The pair remain on good terms, however, and what’s far more significantly timely is that Light Shining has been programmed to coincide with the British general election campaign.
Churchill’s portrait of long-past, fervent political engagement, whilst rueful, remains inspiringly topical. Light Shining keeps touching on subjects that are still highly charged and might, in modern terminology, be referred to as the wealth gap, xenophobia, religious fundamentalism, socialism and Occupy movements. Some may well complain that Churchill’s experimentally fragmented storytelling is abstruse. Others, though, will surely find this monarch-free history play refreshingly alternative.
It must be said that Turner’s epic cast, in partly modern dress, doesn’t bring out all the beauty of the period language. Nevertheless, Joshua James’s fanatical Cobbe makes his rants sound electrifyingly – as well as entertainingly – new-minted. Alan Williams is superbly natural as a boozing, musing vagrant. And Steffan Rhodri, as a lowly butcher, startlingly turns his rage out onto the audience, his sales pitch on the apron stage transmogrifying into a scorching condemnation of well-heeled, consumerist greed.


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