Let me first say that I am a great admirer of Caryl Churchill, who has written a truly impressive array of inventive and contrasting works. Remarkable plays such as The Skriker, Far Away, A Number, Cloud 9, and Love and Information have given me enormous pleasure. Others, like Top Girls, not so much.
Originally produced in 1976 in a collaborative creative process with the Joint Stock Theatre Company, Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is an historical drama of considerable scope, perspicacity, and intensity.
The play also can be something of a slog to endure, frankly, in spite of its intrinsic merits. It is now presented in a new production of dark excellence at New York Theatre Workshop, which gave Light Shining in Buckinghamshire its U.S. premiere in 1991. Much as I can appreciate the versatile acting, the glimmering atmospherics, and many of the drama’s insights, this overlong show that clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes nonetheless registers as a heavyweight history lesson.
Still, let’s not scare away anybody interested in Churchill’s works or in this play’s complicated subject, which regards English society during and immediately after its 1640s Civil War in which King Charles I ultimately was deposed and executed by a Parliamentary government. A glorious revolution yielding great changes was expected by the common people: Equality among the classes, enfranchisement, elimination of hunger, a possibility of heaven on earth … and, of course, none of that happened as compromises and conflicts between the leaders eventually corrupted all of those shining ideals. And so disillusionment descended upon England, except for a handful of religious folk who anticipated Christ’s imminent arrival. The monarchy was restored and the old status quo resumed.
Let’s note that this play and its production do not serve up scenes of swashbuckling battle or King Charles being a Catholic martyr at the block or excitements of a Masterpiece Theatre-type nature. This is mostly a somber talk-athon regarding the meat and potatoes troubles of everyday folk. The one battle depicted here is suggested through an ugly cacophony clanging in the background as a soldier recalls its confusion. The one scene involving legendary individuals such as Oliver Cromwell depicts a grim wrangle over constitutional issues known as the Putney Debates, which Churchill whittled down from its transcripts.
Some 25 characters are evoked by six actors during the two-act drama, which consists of 20 episodes that bear titles such as “The Vicar Welcomes the New Landlord.” It is a stern drama laden with long speeches and deep concerns regarding a distant period and worries that relatively few of us know. Gosh, I am not making this sound at all attractive, am I?
Shame on me, because Rachel Chavkin, whose credits as a director range from Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 to Small Mouth Sounds, stages this challenging play with sharp actors and designers, and obviously with a bold vision to forge it into a meaningful show for audiences today.
One apt use of technology that makes the dense text easier for viewers to comprehend is an Open Captioning screen, which puts all of the play’s words in glowing letters at center stage as they are spoken. Another stratagem can be detected in the smart costume design by Toni-Leslie James. She initially dresses the actors in grave replications of clothes that people wore in the 1640s. Then as the play progresses, elements of modern-day dress creep into the wardrobe: Ripped jeans and Converse High-Tops become mixed with military jerkins and full skirts. By the play’s conclusion, everyone looks as if they had just wandered in from East Fourth Street today. Throughout the production, hand-held mics are frequently employed by the actors.
This infiltration of 2018 visuals is designed to inject some contemporary resonance of the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party varieties to the drama’s historical arguments and issues. It is no accident that the actors speak in modern American accents.
The company features such assured veterans as Vinie Burrows, whose characters manage to maintain dignity even in the most desperate of circumstances, and Rob Campbell, whose vocal acrobatics and incisive presence always creates distinctive personalities. Matthew Jeffers, an actor new to me, hot-wires urgency into the people he depicts. Mikeah Ernest Jennings lends a sense of warmth to many of his characters, while Evelyn Spahr somehow spans centuries as an indomitable bag lady (among others) and a likewise Gregg Mozgala projects believably a then-and-now quality to the individuals he brings to life.
This goodly company treads the well-worn floorboards of Riccardo Hernandez’s expansive, open setting of horizontal wooden beams situated above and against a brick background. Designer Isabella Byrd makes dramatic use of side-lighting in cool or candlelight hues to accent the actors’ bodies and faces even as she provides a dusky overall atmosphere for Churchill’s dark, cautionary saga about a well-meaning generation who somehow let a revolution slip through their fingers.
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire opened May 7, 2018, at NYTW and runs through June 3. Tickets and information: nytw.org