We should have known better.
Andrew was keen to see Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, not for its obvious significance – that it heralds Rufus Norris’ takeover at the National Theatre – but because a) it’s about the English Civil War, b) features one of his favourite actresses, Amanda Lawrence and c) he thought it only fair to give playwright Caryl Churchill a second chance.
The thing is, he had completely forgotten he’d already given Ms Churchill a second chance. He could only remember “the one with the floating sofas” as he succinctly encapsulated Drunk Enough To Say I Love You? Andrew had clearly expunged The Union’s Cloud Nine from his memory bank with no inconsiderable success.
So it was a case of 3 strikes and you’re out. Soz Caryl, we won’t be bothering you again.
It’s the aftermath of the civil war. The economy’s unstable, the political system is corrupt and the people are hungry for food (a point hammered home in the staging) and change. Rebels hope for a new age and a revolution that was not to be.
Sounds ripe with dramatic potential doesn’t it? But in 1976, when Churchill wrote this, she clearly had other plans: eschewing drama by using large verbatim chunks from the Putney Debates of 1647. Or, as Andrew sighed “it must have saved her a lot of time.”
The cast is massive, the design by Es Devlin is as striking as you’d expect from that designer (costumes Soutra Gilmour). The inaction is initially played out on a vast banqueting table littered with suckling pigs, lobster, cheeses etc. Inspiration appears to have come from the illustrated pages of Mrs Beeton’s cookery books, and then some.
Lyndsey Turner who made a splendid fist of directing both Chimerica and Posh is saddled with trying to make something engaging out of what is frequently just a series of speeches. The last half hour of Act 1 sees the cast do the best they can with it, rising from benches in turn to make impassioned proclamations. All that’s missing are talking sticks. It is inert and as dry as the loaves of bread on the table.
A few small crumbs of entertainment were gathered from watching the rich diners who surround the main playing area. These poor actors are saddled with miming dining and drinking (perhaps they were really eating and the drinking? There sightlines aren’t good if you’re in the cheap seats at the front) for an extended period of time. Phil became as transfixed by their acting as he would watching a Coronation Street background artiste trying to make an impression. They have our sympathy. How dull it must be for them to listen to this drear night after night.
No doubt the critics will make comparisons with the politics of today when it opens to the press. We found it impossible to care. Andrew declared it “the most boring play I’ve ever seen”, which is a probably because he’s forgetting an awful lot of other ones he’s said that about.
Billed by the National as “passionate, moving and provocative”, we won’t be invoking the Trade Descriptions Act as there was some truth in the statement: we were provoked passionately to moving elsewhere. There may well have been some dramatic fireworks in Act 2. We will never know.