There’s a brilliant play buried somewhere in Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a bottom-up historical epic about the English Civil War that the acclaimed British writer developed collaboratively with director Max Stafford-Clark and a group of actors back in 1976. Fifteen years later, it premiered stateside at the New York Theatre Workshop, where it has just returned for a ploddingly drawn-out second go-around that yielded a lot of empty second-act seats on the night I attended.
The problem isn’t necessarily the old perception that Americans are intellectually adverse to history, especially when it’s not their own; because, presumably all of the bright-looking people who left during the intermission knew what they were in for when they bought their tickets. In fact, I would sympathetically submit that those fleeing theatergoers might have sincerely wanted to take an elucidating dive into the major events and personages of England’s mid-17th-century regicidal conflict, only to disappointingly find out that Churchill had something very different in mind.
Going deep in her social history of the bloody battle between England’s Royalists and Parliamentarians, Churchill focuses mostly on the common man and woman’s experiences, while barely mentioning the ill-fated King Charles I and turning Oliver Cromwell into a decidedly minor character, though one whose off-stage actions haunt the entire play. A laudable choice, Churchill’s attempt to give voice to the voiceless initially pays intriguing dramatic dividends as we’re treated to emotionally complex scenes of society’s lowest rungs being swept up in a revolution that appealed to their desire for democracy both in this world and the next, with the latter being a seemingly much greater concern than the former.
Although the word “Protestant” is never mentioned, that movement’s disenchantment with the Church of England’s hierarchical nature forms the backbone of the play, even giving it an end-of-days feel, as characters yearn for Christ to return and set right everything that their pope-loving king has corrupted. In the first act, at least, director Rachel Chavkin’s production handles this narrative thread well, with Isabella Byrd’s candle-heavy lighting creating just the right apocalyptic mood and Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design palpably suggesting that the heavens are about to open up and swallow everyone whole.
Unfortunately, as any historian knows, you’re only as good as your primary sources, which is always a challenge when chronicling the lives of people who didn’t, or couldn’t, write down their thoughts. This limitation eventually sends Churchill’s play into a tiresome spiral of repetitive observations about the religiosity of the English underclass, how it influenced their desire to fight, and why, ultimately, the revolution failed them.
By fictionalizing most of her humbler characters, Churchill seems to acknowledge that she is relying on scant evidence, which she didn’t have the training to augment. At one point, however, she does turn to the historical record with a somnolent vengeance, condensing the Putney Debates, a series of discussions in 1647 centered on suffrage and property rights, into a few culminating Act One scenes. Assiduously stripping away whatever vim and vigor might have characterized these ruff-collared proceedings, Churchill, with Chavkin as her far-too-willing accomplice, turns them into a sort of early modern C-SPAN, ending on the immortal line, “I move for a committee.” It was at this moment, as the house lights came up, that I knew the bathroom line would be inordinately short.
Churchill also exhibits a strange indifference to whether or not the audience can track characters from one scene to the next, a challenge that is made even more difficult since all of the actors portray multiple roles. To be sure, there are clues in the dialogue about who’s who, but you grow tired of listening for them. Chavkin tries to help out by supertitling the entire script, which goes from being an annoying distraction to, as the characters start to pile up, a much-needed visual aid. During the play’s slower moving sections (oh, man, those Putney Debates!), it also encourages you to appreciate how well the actors know their lines, which is a nice way to pass the time.
In all seriousness, the actors (Vinie Burrows, Rob Campbell, Matthew Jeffers, Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Gregg Mozgala, and Evelyn Spahr) admirably try to differentiate characters that Churchill isn’t all that interested in differentiating. They also all adeptly handle the extended periods of sheer genius that Churchill puts forward. Because, of course, she does; she’s Caryl Churchill. Particularly great is Campbell’s turn as a supercilious vicar whose attempt to console a servant (Jennings) worried about his sick baby is, to put it mildly, cold comfort. And, in the play’s standout scene, Spahr is wonderful as a butcher who takes a well-heeled, and rotund, customer to task for his self-indulgent ways.
But, for the most part, the actors, whoever they’re supposedly portraying, are just mouthpieces for ideas about how revolutions inevitably disappoint the poor dupes who fight and die for them. It’s not difficult to understand why Chavkin and her collaborators might consider this notion especially appealing right now. And, when Toni-Leslie James’ costumes go from period-perfect in the first act to overtly modern in the second (see what you missed, guy who used to be sitting in front of me!), it’s clear that they’ve doubled down on the connection. It’s just too bad that they’ve bet on a play that’s all-too-often less enlightening than a Wikipedia article.
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (through June 3, 2018)
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-460-5475 or visit http://www.nytw.org
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes including one intermission