by Carol Rocamora
“The least predictable of living playwrights”… “One of the sharpest and most restless theatre imaginations in the world…” … “Her topics defy categorization…”
These are only a few of the critical comments over the years praising the provocative, prolific Caryl Churchill, Britain’s leading political dramatist. Her brilliant, incisive works have dazzled audiences with their dramatic daring. Her subject matter is a constant surprise, and her experimentation with form is unparalleled.
And now her work is back on the New York stage – this time in a bracing revival of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a 1976 play that has been challenging audiences for decades. It’s being directed by Rachel Chavkin (of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 fame), who is determined to breathe new life into this daunting dramatic work.
Light Shining is challenging both in form and content. Essentially, it’s a play about revolutionary idealism written in a revolutionary form – the result of a collaboration between the fearless Ms. Churchill and the Joint Stock Company.
Here’s the context: It’s 1640 – a turbulent time in England when a new kind of political system seems possible. King Charles has been imprisoned for corruption, and his supporters have fled their estates. Meanwhile, Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians are frantically trying to draft a new constitution. Enter three new radical groups – The Diggers , The Ranters, and The Levellers. Their impassioned discussions about a free and just society become known as the Putney Debates. They represent the powerless and disenfranchised – calling, in essence, for an England in which they would have a voice.
Now that’s a tall order to dramatize, wouldn’t you think? (Especially if the audience knows little or nothing about the historical context, nor is familiar with the dramatis personae). But it’s just the kind of dramatic challenge that Churchill loves – especially if it’s on an urgent topic, namely, revolutionary ideas. The resulting form: a series of scenes and monologues, performed by a tight ensemble playing multiple roles – and even some, interchangeably. There’s a whole section of the play devoted to verbatim excerpts of the Debates. (The text is projected on the theatre wall, according to Churchill’s specifications.)
Light Shining is a play about history, ideas, and – above all – political process. To augment its dramatic potential, director Chavkin has cast an ensemble of six actors, diverse in age, race, and physicality, to play dozens of roles. It’s a noble effort, and Riccardo Hernandez’s bare, rough-hewn stage floor gives them an expansive space on which to shine (and they do, including Vinie Burrows, Rob Campbell, Matthew Jeffers, Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Gregg Mozgala, and Evelyn Spahr.) Chavkin also mixes her aesthetic metaphors in an attempt to underscore contemporary relevance; for example, actors in 17thcentury costumes carry hand-held mics (and occasionally a cell phone), or sit in office swivel chairs while conducting the Debate.
Admittedly, it’s a challenge for the audience to follow the narrative, sort out the characters, and absorb the voluminous material lasting two and three-quarter hours. Occasionally there’s a random scene with emotional content to which we can relate – for example, when a woman laments the death of her baby, or when a butcher scolds his clients (in the audience) for gluttony. But these moments are brief and fleeting, interspersed between the didactic speeches.
Light Shining is one of Ms. Churchill’s earlier works, followed by Cloud Nine and Top Girls– all lengthy and structurally unconventional. As the decades pass, as her warnings become more urgent, her plays grow shorter and shorter (Far Away, A Number, Drunk Enough To Say I Love You?, Seven Jewish Children, etc.) Who knows what form she’ll choose next, to serve her content, to capture our attention?
That’s the thrill of appreciating Caryl Churchill and her endlessly inventive, unpredictable oeuvre. That’s why we thank the New York Theatre Workshop for reviving Light Shining once again, to remind us of the range of her dramatic gift and the strength of her voice.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, by Caryl Churchill, directed by Rachel Chavkin, at New York Theatre Workshop until June 3