Light Shining in Buckinghamshire has lived many lives since Caryl Churchill wrote it 42 years ago. The piece’s ambition is grand, but its scope is intimate, allowing for immense freedom of interpretation. Director Rachel Chavkin’s revival at New York Theatre Workshop focuses on its chamber roots as an ensemble piece for six actors.
Churchill’s play takes its name from a 1649 pamphlet produced by the Diggers, one of several groups angling for status and position during the English Civil War (1642–51). The revolutionary fervor was also religious; men and women were fighting not just to tear down an unjust monarchy but to usher in the Second Coming of Christ.
Light Shining focuses on some of the groups often left out of official histories of the war in England, such as the Levellers (roughly analogous to modern socialists), Diggers (Protestant farmers), and Ranters (anarchists who believed God was in everyone). The story is a series of dialogues that jump from place to place and character to character with typically Churchillian obliqueness. The effect is at once disorienting and thrilling, echoing the almost erotic revolutionary charge that hurtles from body to body as the future is transformed overnight from perpetual drudgery to boundless potential.
It’s in those spaces between people, however, that Chavkin’s staging falters. Churchill’s sense of humor is wicked and subtle, but the company’s readings of her dialogue are page-deep, almost completely missing the pitch-black cynical wit that underpins even the most banal scenes, such as a vagrant (Evelyn Spahr) attempting to sell the few possessions she has scavenged, or a second-act butcher's monologue (Spahr again) that veers from congenial to maniacal with terrifying arbitrariness.
The play does finally find its spark near the end of Act I, however. The cast sings Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” set to original music by Orion Stephanie Johnstone, while sounds of battle grow and lights (devised with ferocious refinement by Isabella Byrd) radiate below, above, and all around the stage. Just as the play begins to take off, however, it butts up against the limits of Churchill’s dramaturgy, and all present are subject to a verbatim recounting of the so-called Putney Debates, at which Oliver Cromwell (89-year-old treasure Vinie Burrows) and others argue over the limits of freedom and the new government. The civics lesson is eye-opening, but it’s deadeningly dull theater.
The Spring Awakening–meets–Hamilton design of Riccardo Hernández’s spare hardwood set, which takes in the Workshop’s factory-like exposed brick walls, Toni-Leslie James’s Protestant Chic costumes, and sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman’s handheld microphones, connects the play to those other recent downtown-to-uptown successes that used the past to talk about the present. The concept frees Churchill’s elliptical, knotty creation from further extraneous detail, even if it doesn’t illuminate much therein.
Speaking of illumination, Byrd’s lights almost never shine from directly above the cast, instead creeping, prodding insistently from the sides and rear floor. When light does stream down from above, it’s often a sign that a character has connected to the divine. It's right there in the title: light is the play's most important matter, and Byrd is hands-down this production’s MVP.
As usual, the revolution only manages to replace one form of oppression (royalists) with another (Parliament), but the play’s vision of community is seductive. With onstage surtitles at every performance and a company built of all types of bodies, Chavkin has clearly taken Churchill’s utopian message to heart, but that communion never spills beyond the edge of the stage. The play’s climax, a Ranter revival, is one of the great scenes of the contemporary theater, as a few of the wretched of the Earth find godliness in their ungodly circumstances:
Drunk: I’m in Heaven. And I go up to God. And I say, You great tosspot, I’m as good a man as you, and as good a God as you.
Claxton: And so are we all.
Drunk: Plenty of beer in Heaven. Angels all drunk. Devils drunk. Devils and angels all fornicating.
Hoskins: All the light now –
Cobbe: Sparks of glory –
Hoskins: Light shining from us –
Drunk: And I say to God, get down below on to earth. Live in my cottage. Pay my rent. Look after my children, mind, they’re hungry. And don’t ever beat my wife or I’ll strike you down.
It’s a complex, funny condensation of the ideas that have animated not only Light Shining in Buckinghamshire but Churchill’s entire storied career. When the seeds of the scene are planted early, it generates a terrible awe, like spiritual euphoria. Here, though, it passes with barely a flash, not shining but blinking, and quickly extinguished.
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire plays through June 3 at New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th St.). Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. For tickets and information, visit nytw.org.