Review: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

“There’s an end of outward preaching now. An end of perfection. There may be a time.”

Between this and Rules for Living, that’s two consecutive openings at the National Theatre that have been written and directed by women. Coincidence that it comes at a moment of regime change, who knows? Those more inclined to actual research might possibly tell you it’s more common you’d think but I doubt it. In any case, it’s pleasing to see Caryl Churchill getting a major production of one of her lesser-performed works at the hands of the talented Lyndsey Turner, who will soon be turning her hand to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet.

And it is an ambitious mark she has made here with Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, exploding the original six-strong casting of the show to a company of nearly twenty actors, supported by a community company of forty-odd supernumeraries. She needs the bodies too, to fit around an audacious design feat from Es Devlin which is best experienced with fresh eyes if possible, so no spoilers here. It is an inspired choice though, that both sets the scene perfectly for this world of political debate but also deconstructs meaningfully as the full scope of that debate becomes increasingly clear. 

Based on the Putney Debates of 1647 that saw elements of the English Civil War trying to uproot established notions of society for their differing brands of religious fundamentalism. The discussions around who should be granted suffrage have an obvious instancy, something reflected in the elements of modern dress that gradually seep into the production, but the more compelling argument that Churchill makes – and which remains as pertinent, if not more so, today – is around the reluctance of those who possess power to ever share it, their privilege zealously guarded at all costs then as it is now. 

Speaking of which, it is exciting to see Turner draw her cast from some of the more interesting companies around, the Lyric’s Secret Theatre gang and the Donmar’s all-female Shakespeare crew are both well represented here, alongside National Theatre stalwarts – we’re not breaking too far from the old routine here – but it does mean the likes of Adelle Leonce and Elizabeth Chan rubbing shoulders with Daniel Flynn and Alan Williams to give a fresher feel to the larger ensemble and one that feels excitingly full of potential, especially if it points to a continuing approach to casting under Norris.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire may not be the easiest of plays to digest but this is writing that gives serious food for thought and given as topical and thrilling a production as this, the future of the National Theatre certainly looks interesting. The king is dead, long live the king.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 22nd June

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