Review By Michelle Sutton
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is the second part of Belvoir’s 2022 inaugural repertory season. It shares directors, cast and set with the production of Wayside Bride, written by Alana Valentine. Written by British playwright Caryl Churchill in 1976, Light in Buckinghamshire follows the English Civil War years of 1642-1650, chronicling the rise and fall of revolutionary politics that led to the execution of King Charles, and the subsequent establishment of the new hierarchy of land-owners and “birth of capitalism” in England.
Directed by Hannah Goodwin and Eamon Flack, the production is stripped back, with a sparse school auditorium-like setting with wooden floors and small plastic chairs. The walls start off bare but become filled with neon graffiti and banners calling for revolution, which are slowly removed and painted over throughout the show as enthusiasm wanes and the new status quo is enforced. Music is provided by Alyx Dennison and Marcus Whale with harmonies and drums as the cast eerily chants periodically throughout the show to punctuate the passing of time.
The cast of actors is incredibly committed to the material, especially Rebecca Massey who has the majority of eccentric monologues. Arkia Ashraf is very compelling in his portrayal of a soldier who begins bright-eyed and hopeful, but becomes disillusioned with the army and loses belief in God, society and people’s good-will. The ensemble is incredibly talented across the board, but that is not enough to save some scenes. There is an extremely long scene depicting the Putney Debates of 1647 which discussed democracy, human rights and protection of property. Although the scene is clever and does contain witty jokes amongst the politics, it is difficult to follow and ultimately feels like a chore to witness. It was at this point in the show I attended that some people left the theatre and did not return.
It is clear that Wayside Bride and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire share themes of religion, justice and social inclusion, however I am not sure that they complement each other enough to warrant a repertory season. Wayside Bride has all of the joy, and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire: all of the misery. There is not a lot of nuance in either of them, which makes the viewing experience a little anticlimactic. The direction in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire feels unclear, as there are many scenes that start promisingly, full of fire and purpose, only to drag, dwindle and fall apart mid-way through. Although the sparseness of the set and production is obviously meant to highlight the similarities to modern social inequality, I think that a larger set with more props and varied costuming may have made the production more engaging. A sign lights up telling the audience which year of the civil war they are in but it is not really enough to give the play momentum and a narrative flow. Light Shining in Buckinghamshire does depict the plight of the oppressed and impoverished working class extremely well, conveying the weight of injustice slowly crushing them under the patriarchal hierarchy of the mid-1700s. It’s a shame that this energy is not harnessed more to give the show a heartbeat. Instead, it feels ungrounded and performative. This production may be a case of majorly misreading the room; as right now in 2022 what audiences are craving is not bleak, dense hopelessness. It is a play that is inaccessible to audiences, which is disappointing considering it seems to aim to highlight the struggles of people in poverty and oppression. It feels like it is mostly aimed at other actors or academics, which undercuts any message of empathy or collective struggle it may be trying to convey.
It pains me to say it, but I don’t think this production of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is up to Belvoir’s usually polished and excellent standards. The production feels lost and scrambled despite the actors giving it their best effort. It also runs for 2 full hours with no interval, which is a bizarre choice given the melancholy material, large number of laws, historical events and figures referenced and the old-fashioned, poetic language used. I have never found it so difficult to stay awake and alert during a play in my life, and I am obsessed with modern history and plays based on non-fiction events. There is not much about this production that will appeal to casual theatre-goers, judging from the large number of empty seats in the theatre. Perhaps with further workshopping, stronger direction and more interesting and dynamic visual production elements the play could be a success, but in its current form it is a disappointment.