@ National Theatre, 19 May 2015
I hated homework, but not far into tonight’s play, I started to regret not having done any prior to deciding to watch Light Shining In Buckinghamshire. My knowledge of 17th century history is clearly a little lax, and this became very apparent as the play lead us through a potted history of the English Civil War of that time.
While I have a fleeting knowledge of many areas of history, the emphasis is on the word “fleeting”. In my defence, my History O-level covered 20th century history only, and I did get an A grade, and clearly the 17th century feel outside the remit of the 20th century. In fact, I came to realise half my knowledge of the history of that period appears to have come from 1980s music; the Levellers and New Model Army being two bands who were named after that period.
So, as tonight’s play led us through the history of that period, from the reasons for the uprisings, through the various factions that tried to form a new system of governance, and the aftermath of it all, I watched and did my very best to understand it all, but at times I confess, I was a little confused. And I doubt I was the only one.
But let’s be clear, this didn’t mean for a moment I didn’t enjoy it, there was certainly plenty to enjoy, and like many good plays, it left me wanting to understand more. It’s just that tonight it may have added to my enjoyment if I had understood a little more of the long speeches that were used to carry the story forward.
So what was there to enjoy? Well, let’s start with the stunning visual of the opening scene. The curtain opened (curtain in the loosest sense of the word) to reveal a table, and this was one very impressive table, taking up nearly the whole stage. And anyone who knows the stages at the National Theatre will know these aren’t small stages. The table was surrounded by well dressed noblemen, all finely dressed, clutching wine goblets and enjoying a feast. And as they did so, the play unfolded on the table itself. I told you it was a big table, big enough to be the stage.
Actors walked on and off the table as the scenes unfolded, the sheer grandiose of the play becoming clear as you took in the size of the cast. Even as the noblemen ate and drunk, we saw servants, soldiers, religious groups, one after the other, all setting the scene of how we led to the civil war. It’s certainly a brief history, but done in a way you can’t help but be taking in by.
There are heavy scenes, again this is where some greater knowledge might have helped. The whole scene as the various factions argue over the powers of a new parliament, and who should have the right to vote gets a little confusing, and was a struggle to follow who was who. Even here thou, it is interesting, and led to me wanting to know more, but it was an effort to understand what was going on right then.
As the second act opened, the table took centre stage as it had at the very beginning. As there was talk of the Levellers and Diggers, two terms I have a passing knowledge of, we watched in awe as the surface of the table was destroyed in front of us, dug up to represent the taking over of the land by the commoner, and suddenly the table become the land upon which they would plant their corn, and the land on which the second act would take place.
There was clearly a lot to cram in to the play, maybe a little too much, the cast seemed endless, and there was at least ten central characters to try to keep up with, and without that strong knowledge beforehand, that became difficult.
But even so, it was fun; it was fun to watch, it was fun to have a history lesson thrust upon us, and afterwards it was fun to come home and look up the levellers, the diggers, Oliver Cromwell, and many other things the play had put into my mind.