Theatre review: A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire at the National Theatre

Civil War politics is dull and distancing onstage, says Bridget Galton.

It’s clear why incoming NT director Rufus Norris programmed Caryl Churchill’s 1976 political play at a general election.

But it’s never a good sign when the set is most memorable, or you have to close your eyes to better focus on the arguments.

Set during the upheaval of the English Civil war, it features a concentration-challenging verbatim re-enactment of The Putney Debates when Cromwell’s New Model Army argued issues of suffrage, constitution and democracy. Elsewhere revolutionary groups the diggers, levellers and ranters preach religious tolerance, egalitarianism and communal farming as an antidote to rocketing food prices.

But this brief flowering of monarchy-toppling political idealism is cruelly crushed by Puritan pragmatism, leaving Churchill’s disparate band of outsiders tenaciously clinging on at the margins. Director Lyndsey Turner swells a more intimate ensemble piece into an epic spectacle with a chorus of community players who people Es Devlin’s gold-ceilinged raked table set, which is gradually denuded of regal finery to become cultivated common land.


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But in a work that already deploys Brechtian alienation techniques, I was left so distanced as to be disengaged, which couldn’t have been Churchill’s intent. Far from powerfully resonating with a 2015 of food banks and privilege, her usual poetic intensity is dimmed, the characters seem merely mouthpieces for arguments, and the whiff of hairshirt lefty 70s collectives producing theatre that’s more instructive than entertaining arises.

I found myself wishing this was staged above a pub with six actors. Drama should make you work at times... but not this hard.

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Rating: 2/5 stars

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