BBC Radio 3, 28 April 2013
First performed in 1976, Light Shining in
Buckinghamshire is set in seventeenth century England at the time of the Civil War. Ostensibly an historical drama,
it depicts a world of social unrest and the resultant desire for political reform. It begins by depicting a feudal world:
squires own the land and local clergy oppress the people by preaching the doctrine of original sin. As the action unfolds,
however, word spreads that the Levellers want to change society by allowing equal rights for all.
The kernel of the play focuses on debates held between Cromwell, junior army officers
and Levellers at Putney during the 1640s, forming the basis of Churchill's attack on those in power who cannot agree on creating
a truly democratic voting system, despite the best intentions of everyone involved. This is as true today
as it has always been - perhaps more so in the contemporary world (over three decades after Light Shining in Buckinghamshire
received its premiere), where the gulf between rich and poor seems wider than ever.
Mark Ravenhill's production came over as a series
of debates between people of different social classes. Each debate was prefaced - in quasi-Brechtian style - with a
voice informing us about its time and place. Once that summary had been provided, we could listen more intently to the
arguments being advanced for and against the cause of universal suffrage. Sometimes the writing-style seemed rather
polemical (almost as if Churchill were trying to hector the audience rather than create drama arising from the conflict between
characters), but we were left in little doubt as to the sincerity of her views.
The six-strong cast, led by Paul Rhys, Justin Salinger,
and Monica Dolan, worked hard to recreate the atmosphere of political strife that dominated England during the Civil War,
and still prevails nearly three hundred and seventy years later.