Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Light shining in Buckinghamshire


I happened to be in the front row for Light Shining In Buckinghamshire at the NT's Littleton. It meant I was a metre from the closed industrial strength safety curtain before the play started.

Then a real "Whoa!" moment as this huge shutter lifted to reveal the enormous stage. Now it was as if I was seated at a sumptuous banquet of the nobles of 1640s.

Conspicuous consumption, as these 17th Century noblemen feasted and talked with detachment of the problems of their peasants.

The timeline is around the Civil War, when Oliver Cromwell rose and Charles I fell. The narrative is mostly of the ordinary folk of the time.

Farming Saxons ruled by warrior Normans. Name the animals in the Saxon language, eat rich food named with the Norman language. The poor and disenfranchised left without homes, bartering for food and places to stay.

The nobles waste little time in ejecting any itinerants encroaching their area. A ghostly Charles I presides over a distant throne in parts of the early action.

Caryl Churchill's original play was written in the 1970s and uses a mix of ideas from the 1600s and the 20th century.

From early in the play, there were chuckles from the audience recognising enduring themes, particularly after some of the debates in last week's UK election.

The play also uses verbatim technique, in this case from notes taken of the Putney Debates in 1647. There's aspects that wouldn't seem out of place across the House of Commons in modern times.

That's where this huge production (Maybe 40 plus players on stage at some points) still has some sensibilities of a small play. In places the lighting and staging achieved qualities of a minimalistic set and shows at somewhere like Theatre 503, where an altogether more intimate style of production can be achieved.

The mix creates a strange dynamic in this play. There are engrossing scenes with five or six main actors in dialogues, watched on by another 20 or so spectators. As I think back from my rather special front row seat, there was probably enough going on in the interplay of the few front actors to render the set less necessary.

But that is nit-picking, overall there was much to take in, with this world turned upside down.

Recruitment to an army to fight the antichrist. The emergence of the Levellers and Diggers to reclaim the land for the commoners. The insidious influence of the Church. The pervasive religious overtones of the anticipated End of The World.

Fascinating too that these discussions of the 1640s covered proportional representation, creation of common lands, aspects of welfare and other similar themes.

I wondered how this play would look viewed from further back in this, the National Theatre. By accident of ticketing I was almost thrust into the action, could see the individual fibres of the earth when the diggers tore up the land, could feel splashes from the rain in the closing scenes.

Further back this intimacy could possibly be lost creating spectacle over the detail of the messaging.

Another theme for today, perhaps?

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