A modern take on England's revolutionary era

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire
Angeline Penrith as one of the agitators in Belvoir Theatre's 'Light Shining in Buckinghamshire'. Image: belvoir.com.au

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire
By Caryl Churchill
Co-Directed by Hannah Goodwin and Eamon Flack
Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney
Until May 28

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play co-directed by Hannah Goodwin and Helpmann Award-winning Eamon Flack, dramatises the years 1642–50, during the English Civil War, before and after the defeat and execution of King Charles I.

England was undergoing the transformation from feudalism to capitalism.

The central scene of the play is a dramatisation of the Putney Debates, when representatives from the victorious New Model Army met in 1647 to agree upon a new constitution for England.

Considered the radical agitators of the army, the Levellers demanded male suffrage, biennial parliaments, payment for fighting in the army and rights such as freedom from conscription.

On the other hand, the Grandees — representing the propertied gentry and led by Oliver Cromwell — opposed the Levellers’ proposals, believing that only property owners should be conferred rights.

The dialogue was edited verbatim by Churchill from recorded transcripts of the Putney Debates, now almost 400 years old.

Watching Marco Chiappi as the indifferent Cromwell, one can’t help but be reminded of modern-day politicians who stand up in parliament to argue that some people do not deserve rights, such as asylum seekers and First Nations people.

Cromwell and his fellow gentry saw demands for male suffrage as a threat, and following the Putney Debates swiftly moved to crush the Levellers through military force and legal persecution.

Actor Angeline Penrith, a Wiradjuri and Yuin woman, spoke powerfully in a Q&A session with the cast following the performance about how the scene is reminiscent of how Aboriginal people are consulted tokenistically by people in power who “do what they want to do anyway”.   

The same eight cast members play every character — a difficult brief executed impressively as they are required to change characters between and even within scenes.

The often-frenetic nature of character dialogue and multiple character changes at times serve to represent competing struggles and ideas, but mostly results in confusion for the audience.

The long, wordy scenes of political and theological arguments between characters — delivered in 17th century English — muddle the intended messages of the play.

The costume design adds to the confusion, with the cast dressed in modern day clothes, and it is difficult to visually distinguish between the different characters played by the same actors.

Live music from sound designer Alyx Dennison and musician Marcus Whale is a notable highlight, and provides an eerie, purposefully-unsettling backdrop to the production. 

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is well-intentioned, but lacks clarity, and presents a struggle to follow for those not intimately familiar with this period of English history.