Review – Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

“Between the logic of the Revolution and its philosophy there exists this difference—that its logic may end in war, whereas its philosophy can end only in peace.”

Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

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When I was a child, maybe about 7 or 8, I used to wake up in the middle of the night with a bizarre sensation: I had suddenly become tiny, and my bed was a hulking, distorted frame, bigger than anything I’d ever seen. I would sit on the edge of the impossibly large bed, feel dizzy for a few minutes, my eyes would be wide with fear and incomprehension, and then I’d climb back in and drift off to sleep again. 

It was only a few weeks ago, while I was listening to an episode of Josie Long’s brilliant Short Cuts podcast, that I remembered this used to happen. The theme was Rabbit Holes and a woman was explaining exactly the same phenomenon (and exactly the same moment of recognition). It’s called Alice In Wonderland Syndrome apparently, and it’s quite common in children. Which was reassuring – because the other cause (according to Wikipedia) is a brain tumour. 

So when the safety curtain rose on Light Shining In Buckinghamshire and there was a colossal dining table on stage – in fact, it essentially was the stage; to go back to Lewis Carroll, in his novel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded he talked about a map whose scale was a mile to the mile because it’s only possible to capture all the detail of a land by creating a full-scale replica of the land itself, so this table wasn’t really a table on a stage, but instead a table as a stage – anyway, when the safety curtain rose and I saw this table I had a pang of that weird childhood distortion syndrome. An uncontrollable flash of clutching at the bed sheets hoping it wasn’t real. Sizes were all wrong. The gentry sitting all around the table were far too small; the suckling pig and bunches of grapes far too large.

The lower classes had to use that table as their stage, always in the shadow of the gentry’s opulence. It was a visual embodiment of that statistic about the richest 1% owning 50% of the world’s wealth. They have so much, they take up so much room, that they leave no space (or no money) for anyone else. Design and direction kept pushing at this power imparity: on trial for vagrancy, her back to the audience, Margaret Brotherton (Ashley McGuire) answers the questions barked at her by the justices of the peace. We can hear everything they say, but none of Brotherton’s responses; her voice is not important. Soapbox revolutionaries lure workers to fight for God and against the monarchy for eight pence a day – the idealists and the impoverished alike sign their lives away. The gentry still sit around the table and they still eat.

My knowledge of British history is lacunose to say the least. I know 1066, 1666 and 1966; that’s about it. Most of the Putney debates, the factionalism, the historical context went straight over my head, though I tried to hawk up as many tidbits as I could from somewhere in my memory. But what struck me was the rhetoric of the anti-monarchists: it was their zeal for god, their fundamental knowledge of what was innately and divinely right, that led them to overthrow the decadence of the monarchy. It sounded similar to the news items about ISIS and their rallying cries that appear every day.

That resonance complicates what seems to be a pro-people, grassroots theme that populates the play. There’s satisfaction when the Diggers remove the wooden veneer of the big table and till the soil underneath. The clerks, still sitting around on their grand chairs, now have mud as a writing desk. Their papers, previously on solid wood, are now crumpling in the lumpy clay. But there is no victory. Not really. Not for the Levellers or the Diggers or the Roundheads or the Cavaliers. There may be principles, and some may fight for those principles and some may kill for those principles, but in the end it’s Pyrrhic all round. Concessions and compromises, minor triumphs and moments of hope.

That’s not to say it’s not worth it though.

As long as you’re not from ISIS.

“Revolution is precisely the contrary of revolt. Every revolution, being a normal outcome, contains within itself its legitimacy, which false revolutionists sometimes dishonour, but which remains even when soiled, which survives even when stained with blood.”

Tim Bano

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