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The light shines on

Those seeking social change and those who want to maintain the status quo expressed their hopes and fears in the only way open to them in 1647 – through the Old and New Testaments. Corinna Lotz reviews a timely revival.

The heightened religious fervour of 17th century England permeates from the start of this revival of Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Actors bearing candles chant in unison as they converge towards the stage along the furrows of a cross dug out in soil.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire
Vicar (Michelle Terry)
photo by Robert Workman

Only a plain wooden table with three candles relieves the gloom: it is a harsh place in harsh times.  A monumental Civil War is unresolved and the stakes could not be higher. The old society, hitherto dominated by feudal absolutism, is being challenged on the battlefield by the forces of Parliament who reflect the needs of an emerging capitalist class.

The divisions which rent society are brought to life in Churchill’s script, which is closely based on transcripts and pamphlets of the time. The play’s name is taken from a 1648 tract written by the Diggers, who sought to create egalitarian farming communities in a challenge to the landowning classes.

The rising middle classes had to transform the foundations of economic and political power and defeat the old aristocracy by means of revolution and civil wars. But in order to take on the ruling classes militarily, the Cromwellians needed the support of those below them. The poor hoped their turn would come.

The very foundations of society were rocked by an elemental upsurge, stoked by injustice and set on fire by the apocalyptic speeches of Agitators and Ranters. The turmoil in people’s hearts and minds is brilliantly brought to life in the opening scene, where Cobbe (Christopher Harper) is tormented by lust and his fear of hell.

The life of the poor is truly devastating. Humiliation and persecution was their lot. Justices of the Peace find the homeless and penniless Margaret Brotherton (Helena Lymbery) guilty of vagrancy and sentence her  “to be stripped to the waist and beaten to the bounds of this parish and returned parish by parish to… where she was born”.

In a mesmerising scene, Lymbery and Michelle Terry show how in the chaos of revolution, two downtrodden women of the day marvel at the possessions of their masters – a mirror, wool blankets and linen sheets.

Star, the recruiter for Cromwell’s Parliamentary army (played by Philip Arditti – also known for his television role in Spooks) promises his destitute listeners their own moment of glory: “Join now for a soldier of Christ and you will march out of this town to Jerusalem. Who are you? What are you? I know you all and you know me. You are nobody here. You have nothing. But the moment you join the army you will have everything. You will be as important as anybody in England. You will be Christ’s Saints.”

In Part Two, the conflict within the New Model Army between the senior officers (the Grandees) and the Agitators, who stood for the interests of the ordinary men, reaches its peak.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire
Cromwell (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith)
photo by Robert Workman

On 28 October 1647, a document called An Agreement of the People, prepared by those who wanted a democratic republic, is presented to the General Council of the Army. The cut-and-thrust between Leveller Colonel Thomas Rainborough (Jamie Ballard), Oliver Cromwell (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) and Cromwell’s son-in-law General Ireton (Michelle Terry) raises issues which remain burningly relevant.

Rainborough’s words continue to ring across the centuries and speak directly to a new generation: “For really I think that the poorest he in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; therefore truly sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under it.”

The Arcola’s revival of this 1976 play is full of resonance at a time when the old British parliamentarianism has to give way to something new and democratic. All praise to director Polly Findlay and Strawberry Vale Productions.

20 July 2010

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire runs until 7 August at the Arcola, Dalston. Box office 020 7503 1646. Tickets £16/£10.

A Gala event is on Thursday, 21 July 2010, 6:30pm for 7.00pm
With Tony Benn | Billy Bragg | Kate Mosse | Geoffrey Robertson
Tickets are £48 which includes the show at the Arcola Theatre followed by a reception of food, drink, opinions and music. All proceeds go directly towards securing the production.

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