Philip Arditti, Jamie Ballard, Christopher Harper, Kobna Holdbrook Smith, Helena Lymbery, Michelle Terry
For many of us British history sweeps by in gilded robes. Flick on the history channel, and between the programmes on Nazi gold and Top 10 Mermaids of All Time, you are bound to find someone tiredly picking over the corpus of British monarchy.
Indeed sometimes it seems we have made the transition from forelock-tugging subject, to plonker-pulling celebrity watcher, by patiently observing an unending procession of sovereign glamour. That our constitutional monarchy long since descended into soap opera is widely acknowledged, that this thin media gruel stretches back to the dark ages, less so.
Caryl Churchill’s neglected classic is a sizzling antidote to every television historian you’ve ever fallen asleep watching. It revolves around the incendiary events of 1647. Oliver Cromwell and his Grandees were poised to capture the sovereign power of England, in their way stood the strident and disaffected Levellers. Through the infamous Putney debates they would decide the radical cast of Britain’s future.
Churchill’s mixture of living drama and historical precision is deep and compelling. The debates themselves are eloquently summarised in a formal contest of ideas, teased from the dense grove of political philosophy come exchanges of clarity and tension, where we come face to face with the vertiginous creation of British democracy. Of the events surrounding the debates, Churchill creates a living, breathing, shouting scrapbook. A mother weeps for her dead baby, a soldier discusses the proper extent of dissent within an army, an inflamed butcher swings his cleaver as if to slice the class hatred he sees around him, a man is sent hysterical by the demands and process of reason.
The ensemble cast are full of boisterous energy, supplying the force required to propel us through the fragmented history. And while they sometimes lack punctuation as a whole, Jamie Ballard does a good job of modulating the high-end with a set of spry and nuanced performances, and where the low-end sometimes lacks rumble, the pathos is provided by a solidly ingenuous Helena Lymbrey. Hannah Clarke’s theatre in the round drags the audience into the tumult, the muddy stage is kicked up time and again, and there’s a neat and moving symbolic moment involving light bulbs. And while the play’s ideas are occasionally pushed aside by the sheer momentum, Polly Findlay’s production controls the chaos, and succeeds in putting the audience squarely, dizzyingly within the events.
There is a profound and moving spirit of humanism at the heart of Light Shining. Churchill has frequently been claimed as postmodern: her foregrounding of race, gender, cultural history at odds with the old leftist guardians of British socialism. And while it’s true in Light Shining she lifts the discussion away from the grounding in institutions and traditions, towards the pub and the parlour, the street and the community – here she cannot be framed as a dilettante relativist.
In the final scene, where the Levellers are collected around an oaken table, Churchill gives us both the demise and the hope of progressivism. The chilly wilderness where ideas of collective politics have crumbled into individual narratives are offset by a warm glow of a sense of comradeship. By explicating a communal event, she shows that rationality and logic do not belong to the realm of cold calculation, but can be used to welcome people, to forgive and construct futures. Churchill gives us an English Enlightenment forged around a table littered with bottles of London Pride.
In an ideal Britain this play would stand as a touchstone of history, the script jacked into Starkey’s autocue, given its own channel, to be drawn on and remixed in public culture ad infinitum. The French and North Americans have their Olympe de Gougeses and Paines. Here Churchill reaches back and brings one of our forgotten radical moments into plain view. She gives us a living history, which speaks clearly to how we live and love. Another gem from the Arcola, and not a gilded robe in sight.