While it might not seem that a play about the English Civil Wars and the Putney Debates of 1640s England would have much resonance in 21st century Australia, Caryl Churchill’s framing, even some 45 years after the first staging, see our protests as rehashings of the same concerns of religious freedom, democracy, and social justice.
Structured as an ensemble piece with actors carrying multiple named and unnamed characters, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire starts amongst the unorganised English people with their problems of poverty, ill health, and growing dissatisfaction with the monarchy as led by King Charles I. Eventually the people do become organised under Star (Brandon McClelland) when they overthrow the King, exile his son, and establish the Commonwealth of England but not before also warring with Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. In one pivotal scene, Churchill distills the Putney Debates into a long, drawn-out debate between Henry Ireton (McClelland) and Oliver Cromwell (Marco Chiappi) and the Agitators (Sandy Greenwood and Angeline Penrith) and Thomas Rainsborough (Rebecca Massey) about who would be afforded a vote under their new constitution. On the one hand, social justice and sovereignty and, on the other, property. Despite what became of these seven years of war and suffering (ie much of the same), the ever-present faith in the coming return of Jesus Christ to Earth and the rewards to be reaped in Heaven galvanised the Levellers and Diggers and formed the central pillar of their belief in goodliness and Godliness.
Working with Churchill’s historically rich and linguistically dense script, co-directors Eamon Flack and Hannah Goodwin focused on the atmosphere of resistance against the State, capitalism, and general abuses of power repeatedly represented in the characters’ stories. Staged in a ramshackle school gymnasium or community hall, designed by Michael Hankin, with mismatched plastic chairs and well-worn wooden floorboards, the spirit of the production wavered between the riotous power of community action and the crushing destitution of poverty and political and social abandonment. Throughout the changes in scenes and time periods, spray-painted slogans and wheat-pasted posters signposted the tidal political momentum and key concerns at play. The growing sense of disquiet culminated in the final subjugation of the Diggers with a thorough dowsing by a fire hose that left a quiet, sodden group huddling in prayer; an image of resilience or defiance or faith reminiscent of recent scenes from al-Aqsa mosque invaded by Israeli riot police which left over 150 Palestinians injured.
The performances were impressive for the passion they lent to the centuries-old conflicts and dry historical figures. In particular, Arkia Ashraf was sympathetic and compelling as Briggs, a soldier who eventually grew disillusioned with the army’s hierarchies of power, as well as Chiappi as a comic relief priest and big wig Cromwell, and Rashidi Edward whose character offered insightful philosophical musings from a practiced distance. At different times in the production, Massey, Greenwood, and Emily Goddard played representatives of women suffering under patriarchal control with violence and starvation wielded against them and their children with impunity. These glimpses at the ordinary English person were sensitively portrayed and could have been afforded greater attention amongst grander scenes.
Additionally, as a recreation of a particularly grimy and brutal period of English history, there could have been more emphasis placed on atmosphere and place. The costuming by Ella Butler incorporated dishevelled layers in gesture to the desperation of unhoused people while the lighting design by Damien Cooper frequently used dimmed lighting states to create a sense of neglect and disuse. However, the sound design by Alyx Dennison, which included live musical accompaniment, left something to be desired in the artificial solitary drum beat to signal scene changes, especially when considering the choral interludes in which the ensemble performed hymns. These moments could have provided the respite of transcendence to the muck of 17th century England but they rather captured the stilted obligation of typical church services instead.
If you got bogged down in the many names and dates of the script then Edward’s protest sign declaring, “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit”, most likely referencing this now memed sign from pro-choice protests in Poland in 2016, makes it clear that the war for social and political control of resources and personal freedoms is ongoing. And with Easter, Passover, and Ramadan coinciding with the first full weekend of the federal election campaign season, the overlap of religion, politics, and protest felt particularly potent in this production’s opening night.
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is running at Belvoir from April 7th – May 28th as part of Belvoir’s Repertory Season alongside Wayside Bride
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