Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Apr 7 – May 28, 2022
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Directors: Eamon Flack, Hannah Goodwin
Cast: Arkia Ashraf, Rashidi Edward, Marco Chiappi, Emily Goddard, Sandy Greenwood, Rebecca Massey, Brandon McClelland, Angeline Penrith
Images by Teniola Komolafe
Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is based on what is known as the Putney Debates in England, that had taken place immediately after their civil war of 1647. Churchill frames those discussions in terms of a search for a new democracy, in relation to preconceived ideas that are mainly about religion, and property ownership. In these historical re-evaluations of events leading up to the establishment of the Commonwealth of England, Churchill focuses our attention, not on how a revolution could be won, but what the challenges might be thereafter, to formulate a renewed system for the distribution of resources, and to generate new and improved ideologies.
46 years after its Edinburgh premiere, Churchill’s pre-Thatcher concerns are more pertinent than ever. We have replaced monarchies with oligarchic plutocracies, with the wealthiest men spending unimaginable sums of money to rocket into space for a meagre few minutes, in the middle of a pandemic that continues to destroy incalculable livelihoods. It seems we are still unable to figure out meaningful revolutionaries, only knowing to reinstall one bad system after another.
The verbose play is directed by Eamon Flack and Hannah Goodwin, who convey an air of importance for these philosophical explorations, but clear and detailed elucidations are disappointingly sporadic. Much of the exchanges are muddled and perplexing, sometimes even coming across abstract or detached, when what we need is a political theatre that speaks with considerable force.
Set design by Michael Hankin is appropriately minimal and rustic, for the depiction of post-war purgatory. Ella Butler’s costumes are equally pared down, so that we may perceive realistic bodies at a time of great adversity. Lit by Damien Cooper, imagery in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is full of melancholy, able to evoke the disappointment that inevitably comes after a war is lost and won. Live music by Alyx Dennison and Marcus Whale is a highlight, and an unequivocal visceral treat, even if their severe percussion is used repeatedly to cause alarm.
The ensemble of eight actors demonstrates an admirable dedication for the material, and although not always able to communicate with great coherence, they are certainly an inviting presence that encourages us to participate in their various deliberations.
Revolutions are still needed, even if we are yet to have real certainties about how a new world should be. Knowing that we have had endless failed attempts, does not negate the fact that many things have improved through the ages. Perhaps we need to contend with the idea, that our efforts, no matter how radical, can only effect minor adjustments within the grand scheme. We should know by now, that overnight rehabilitations are impossible, much as our hearts desire them. Things seem to only get better in small increments, and the price for them are disproportionately high, which explains why the business of systemic change, has always only been for the brave.