Light Shining in Buckinghamshire
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Theater review by Adam Feldman
Attending New York Theatre Workshop’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is like going to the restaurant of a three-star Michelin chef and being served four courses of porridge. No matter how nourishing the meal may be—how careful the boiling, how locally sourced the oats—it’s disappointing. Created in 1976 from a mix of actors’ improvisations and historical texts, the play presents a long and occasionally repetitious depiction of the English Civil War, whose chaos gave rise to a host of competing radical energies; its emphasis is on the dashed aspirations of the poor, who hoped that real change might be imminent. Their arguments resonate with some of our current conversations about resistance, and in the second act, director Rachel Chavkin puts her actors—notably diverse in age, ethnicity and able-bodiedness—in modern dress. (They speak with American accents throughout.)
Whereas a 2015 revival at London’s National Theatre featured lavish pageantry, Chavkin mostly hews to the play’s original grain, with simple sets and costumes and a cast of six playing multiple characters, sometimes confusingly. Churchill has spoiled us, perhaps, with so many wonders of theatrical innovation—Cloud Nine, Top Girls, Blue Heart, Far Away and Escaped Alone, to name a few—that this earlier work, by contrast, can seem drab and tendentious. The high point is a historically interesting account of the Putney Debates, a 1647 public forum in which would-be reformers aired their grievances to Oliver Cromwell (Vinie Burrows) and his son-in-law, General Henry Ireton (Matthew Jeffers); there are also moments of passionate ire, including a juicy monologue for a butcher (Everlyn Spahr) who refuses to serve an overfed customer. But much of the play is weighed down in disquisitions on the injustices of God and property. The austerity of the production promises virtue and expects it of us, as well—especially the virtue of patience. That may be too much to ask: At the performance I attended, a third of the audience disappeared at intermission.
New York Theatre Workshop (Off Broadway). By Caryl Churchill. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission.