To director Rachel Chavkin, her revival of Caryl Churchill’s early play about the English Civil War is a well-timed political work about a failed revolution, whose characters may inspire American theatergoers who see themselves as members of a modern-day Resistance. I suspect many audience members at New York Theatre Workshop, though, will offer some resistance to Light Shining in Buckinghamshire itself.
Six actors portray some two dozen characters in more than 20 scenes over two hours and 45 minutes intended to give a sense of the chaos, fervor, hope and upheaval in England from roughly 1640 to 1660. An insert in the program entitled “Some Context” gives a too brief but much-needed overview of the complex series of armed conflicts and political confrontations of the era, the most vivid of which was the beheading of King Charles I in 1649. First Parliamentarians, who wanted a more representative government, fought against Royalists, who supported the king. As events unfolded, three political and religious radical groups emerged with the delicious (and historically accurate) names of the Levellers, the Diggers, and the Ranters. They fought against the co-opted and corrupted Parliament for liberal democratic values, such as religious tolerance and greater political enfranchisement. All this revolutionary clamoring was snuffed out with the restoration of King Charles II, the son of the beheaded king, in 1660.
Little of this history is spelled out in word or action on stage. We get no beheading, nor even hear about it.
What come across the clearest are the horrible conditions of the poor during this era, and the pervasive injustice by the rich and powerful. In one scene, a vicar smugly tells his servant that if his ill baby dies, it increases the servant’s chance of getting into heaven. “We all have to suffer in this life,” he says, taking a drink. In the next scene, two judges try a woman who had been begging for food, convict her of vagrancy, and sentence her to be beaten and stripped and chased to the parish where she was born – all the time chattering away, while the woman says almost nothing. In a much later scene, we see that the woman, distraught (portrayed quite movingly by Evelyn Spahr), is burdened with a newborn baby that she can’t care for.
These earthy emotional scenes contrast with scenes full of political and even spiritual arguments, some of them taken verbatim from historical records. Act I ends with the longest scene of the play, in which characters including Oliver Cromwell (commander of the Parliamentarians, though we’re not told that in the play) debate what needs to be included in a new constitution, dialogue taken from what is called The Putney Debates.
There are nuggets throughout Light Shining Through Buckinghamshire that are intellectually stimulating; entire scenes that are moving or mesmerizing. But it’s a challenging play to take in as a whole — a special challenge to Americans not well-versed in English history, but difficult for anyone because of Churchill’s dramaturgical approach. There would be too many characters to keep track of in any case, but we can’t possibly be expected to keep it all straight when the same characters are portrayed by different actors in different scenes.
In Churchill’s later plays, such as Cloud Nine, which I saw in a first-rate production 2015, and Love and Information in 2014, her experiments in theatrical form are no less bold, but they don’t come at the expense of clarity – at least not in the productions I’ve seen. This may help explain why Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, first presented in England in 1976, took 15 years to come to New York, in a production in 1991, with Cherry Jones in the company, which was produced by the same Off-Broadway theater (although before they moved into their East Village digs) now producing it again 27 years later. New York Theatre Workshop, which has presented eight Churchill plays, is the only New York theater to do Light Shining on Buckinghamshire.
Rachel Chavkin has a well-deserved reputation for inventive stagecraft, in shows like Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, for which she was nominated for a Tony, and in Hadestown. There are some satisfying touches in this production of Light Shining, mostly the dramatic ways lighting designer Isabella Byrd makes the, well, lights shine. But those expecting what we can call Chavkinian innovation — a radical alteration in the design of the theater, or a feeling of physical immersion – will be disappointed.
There are two ways in which the production’s departure from theatrical convention is welcome, and indeed long overdue. One is in the deep diversity of its sterling cast, which includes Matthew Jeffers, who played God in The Mysteries at The Flea, and stands 4’2” tall – his opening monologue in Light Shining delivering a guilt-ridden prayer manages both to be riveting and hilarious — and Gregg Mozgala, who is a disabled activist and last year performed in the Pulitzer-winning Cost of Living. The other is that there is open captioning (aka supertitles) at every performance, following up on the same practice in the production Children of Lesser God currently on Broadway, and Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Pursuit of Happiness earlier this year at the Under the Radar Festival, which I hope augurs a trend.
Light Shining on Buckinghamshire is on stage at the New York Theatre Workshop (79 East 4th Street in the East Village, between Bowery and 2nd Ave, New York, N.Y. 10003) through June 3, 2018.
Light Shining on Buckinghamshire. Written by Caryl Churchill, directed by Rachel Chavkin. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernández, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Isabella Byrd, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, properties by Noah Mease, original music and music direction by Orion Johnston. Featuring Vinie Burrows, Rob Campbell, Matthew Jeffers, Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Gregg Mozgala, Evelyn Spahr. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.