Review: When the ‘Light Shining’ on Revolution Falters

Posted May 7, 2018 11:35 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Theater is a collaboration but not usually a commune. That may help explain why Caryl Churchill’s “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire” — which she wrote, in 1976, after a three-week workshop with actors helping to develop the characters and scenes — is the first of her plays I’ve found indulgent and leaden. However wonderful it may be to perform, it’s a hard slog to sit through.

I say this as a longtime admirer of Churchill’s work, including, most recently, “Escaped Alone,” “Love and Information” and “A Number.” I also appreciate how the match of method and content seems, on paper, propitious. “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire” is, after all, a play about equity and representation among people usually powerless over their lives. I don’t mean actors, but rather the masses of landless laborers who took up arms against King Charles I of England in the mid-1600s.

The revival that opened on Sunday at New York Theater Workshop, which also produced the play’s American premiere in 1991, certainly gets the shiver of civil disorder right.

Directed by Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown,” “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”), the evening is nothing if not true to the themes of confusion and foreboding. Riccardo Hernández’s lowering set, Isabella Byrd’s gloomy lighting and Mikaal Sulaiman’s rumbling sound design together create the feeling that, in the words of Isaiah that open the play, “the foundations of the earth do shake.”

But it’s an anticlimax built into the aftermath of the English Civil War, and into Churchill’s construction, that all the shaking ends up changing little. The men who fought to help the gentry supplant the throne wind up no better off than when they started. “The army is as great a tyrant as the king was,” one of the soldiers (Gregg Mozgala) complains, only neglecting to include the church in his disappointment.

That’s true of history but taxing as dramaturgy. As much as Churchill meant to portray (as she writes in a preface to the script) “the amazed excitement of people taking hold of their own lives,” what we actually see onstage is an endless cycle of betrayal and hardship.

When that bleak vision arises from characters interacting, it is sometimes beautifully crystallized. We get a big dose of Churchill’s withering sarcasm, for instance, in a scene between a vicar (Rob Campbell) and his servant (Mikéah Ernest Jennings). While savoring his wine, the vicar tells the servant, whose newborn child is dying, “It must have been a comfort this morning to have the bishop himself encourage you to suffer.”

Later, having stolen a shard of mirror from an abandoned manor house, a woman (Evelyn Spahr) marvels that the rich “must know what they look like all the time!” How wrong she is.

More often, though, the arguments aren’t dramatized so much as transcribed. In the long scene that ends the first act, Churchill presents the actual content (much condensed, of course) of the Putney Debates of 1647, in which representatives of the newly victorious army considered what to do with their victory. Designated “agitators” like Edward Sexby (Jennings) sought legal changes that would grant commoners (though not their women) suffrage; proponents of Parliament like Henry Ireton (Matthew Jeffers) and Oliver Cromwell (Vinie Burrows) were less enthused by the idea.

Chavkin, who has gradually been introducing contemporary touches throughout the play, stages the debate as if it were a zoning committee meeting in a modern metropolis. One participant swigs from a bottle of Diet Coke; another surreptitiously checks his iPhone. Droll as this is, it neither leavens the bureaucratic heaviness of the scene nor deepens it as drama.

Not that the issues aren’t important and timely; what could be a more powerful question to ask today than how to create fairness when people in power fundamentally don’t want it? Over and over, representatives of the gentry assert that giving ordinary men the vote will result in the seizure of property; over and over, the others ask what they have staked their lives for if their lives are not to be made better for it.

Clearly, Churchill wants the audience to endure in real time the inertia that stifled change in 1647 and so much human potential over the centuries. That’s a bit of force-fed spinach, but not the only bit. As written, “Light Shining in Buckinghamshire” aims to keep the audience at a Brechtian distance so that sentiment won’t cloud its politics. To that end Churchill recommends that every actor play several characters and that many characters be played by several actors, thus preventing us from becoming attached to anyone.

Being too good a playwright, she sometimes fails; a scene in which one woman (Burrows) convinces another (Spahr) to give her baby to the rich lest it die of malnutrition is both polemical and heartbreaking.

Though Chavkin does not follow all of the playwright’s recommendations — some roles are played by the same actors throughout — she doubles down on the alienation. Characters pull hand mics from their doublets and scream accusations of gluttony at the audience; I often found myself reading the prominently placed live captioning board even though I could hear the actors just fine. The overall effect is forbidding, the opposite of the broad welcome Chavkin intended.

Where she has been more successful in realizing her vision is in casting actors who, as she told The New York Times, “reflect and embody” the play’s spirit of collective liberation “as powerfully as possible.” Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more diverse group of performers — by age, race, stature and physical ability — than the six who cover the two dozen roles here.

That would hardly matter if they were not all excellent, but they not only master Churchill’s dense representation of 17th-century English, they also find ways to undermine her alienation. Certainly, it’s hard to feel distanced when they sing Orion Stephanie Johnstone’s thrilling choral music.

I am not sure their warmth is fully authorized, but I was glad of it. It is only in such moments that you feel Churchill’s mature temperament at work: political, to be sure, but a politics distilled into much greater pungency by wit and love and indirection. It seems fitting that a play developed with the help of actors should be, in this way, rescued by them, to the extent rescue is possible.

Production Notes:

'Light Shining in Buckinghamshire'

Through June 3 at New York Theater Workshop, Manhattan; 212-460-5475, nytw.org. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

By Caryl Churchill; directed by Rachel Chavkin; sets by Riccardo Hernández; costumes by Toni-Leslie James; lighting by Isabella Byrd; sound by Mikaal Sulaiman; props by Noah Mease; original music and music direction by Orion Stephanie Johnstone; stage manager, Jhanaë K-C Bonnick. Presented by New York Theater Workshop.

Cast: Vinie Burrows, Rob Campbell, Matthew Jeffers, Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Gregg Mozgala and Evelyn Spahr.