Failed rebellion, unexpected tyrants, and a fundamental disagreement over what equality and freedom are, are central to Caryl Churchill’s politically-minded Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. It’s not a perfect metaphor for our current moment though it certainly asks us to reflect on a world of haves and have-nots and how a property-based capitalist system rewards some at the expense of others. Rachel Chavkin’s minimalist production offers a rich soundscape, evocative lightning, and solid performances, but at times the dense text can be an impediment. Though the production moves with great agility (a feat considering the challenging material), the hangover from the historical content is hard to ignore.
The play covers the political upheaval of the English Civil War, the overthrow of the King and then the disappointing aftermath for the rebelling people of England. They fought the King in the name of God thinking they would gain their freedom only to discover that Cromwell and the landed gentry who’ve led them into battle have a different image of government and revolutionary progress than the workers and soliders. The property-owners intend to preserve what they have and take whatever additional power they have gained by the defeat of the royal tyrant. They become themselves tyrannical to their workers; it’s whack-a-mole political capitalism as one oppressor is removed and another steps into their place.
The production begins largely in period clothing with small anachronisms and Act I culminates in a staging of some of the Putney Debates, a historic event where various factions of soldiers presented their proposals for the future in the hopes of contributing to the settlement Oliver Cromwell was negotiating with the King (only to find their ideas rejected or ignored). The play captures the trepidation of the worker/soliders at first to rebel and then their excitement at the potential to remake the political landscape with their new ideas. But the Debates fail to ignite the changes they were seeking so in Act II the defeated soldiers, preachers, and workers drink their sorrows in a community “church” gathering–now in modern dress sipping IPAs.
Though the nature of the dispute is framed around historic oppression of the invading Normans on the Saxons and a holy battle, throughout we are meant to hear the echoes of our history. A colonizing force who changed language and imposed their political systems on the people already living there should sound familiar to us. So should the idea that property owners will seek to preserve and protect their acquisitions and takings but not consider their workers equals. The play also wants us to consider what freedom looks like, what equality means, and how the structures around us perpetuate that injustice.
Some of these political strands can be harder than others to tease out especially when the characters frame so much in the language of the religious strife of the era—stating war comes from the devil and pondering if their current oppression is what Christ wants and whether to end such suffering to be sinful. Which character speaks for which radical political group from the era can be a little opaque. The production offers captioning at all performances and I was grateful for the resource to visualize where we were in history and which character was which since the actors were confusingly doubling up at times.
Despite the perplexing historical context, we see clearly the hierarchies of power and control in the dynamics but also the fractures that come from self-awareness and rebellion. One character leaves his wife and experiments with sex, lies, and theft seeing the concept of sin in a new light. A butcher attempts to disrupt the social order with how she distributes meat, imagining if it was not a system of money but a system of equality that dictated.
Chavkin has a sense of the “now” bleed through the production. Like the echo of images underneath tracing paper, we sense both past and present simultaneously–think ruffs and deli coffee cups at the Debates. The explosions and rumbling of cannon battle morphs into flashes of police lights, the sound of breaking glass, and a roaring crowd protesting. The costuming by Toni-Leslie James, the sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, and the lighting design by Isabella Byrd seamlessly compliment the period events in certain beats while still pushing us to see this all with a modern lens in others. When the hopeful radicals say, “It’s for next year. Now is just a strange time between Antichrist going and Christ coming, so what do you expect in a time like this?” and “[God’s] started some great happening and we’re in it now,” we cannot help but apply this to our present politics and feeling on the cusp of upheaval. But despite Chavkin’s efforts the textual relevance is slippery and seems to come and go.
Chavkin’s cast are a mix of able-bodied and disabled actors. So often when talking about diversity and casting in theater, disability is left out of the conversation. Casting these actors in this piece kept me thinking that while we celebrate strides in progress that have been made in our culture we continue to fail to provide equal access to all. So we must not rest on our laurels. We have to pay attention to how much systemic and institutional oppression still exists and examine how our action (or inaction) perpetuate that tyranny. If in intersectional activism we’re not free until all are free, then we still have a long way to go.