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  • Published in Arts Review
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire

Making a point: Steffan Rhodri as grassroots idealist Sexby

Caryl Churchill’s classic English revolution drama could not come at a better moment nor be performed in a better place, says John Rees

The title of Caryl Churchill’s play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire comes from a 1649 pamphlet from the radical Digger movement and the piece follows an assorted group of revolutionaries through the middle years of the 17th century that saw civil war, revolution, the execution of King Charles and the declaration of a republic.

I was lucky enough to do a seminar with the National Theatre cast during rehearsals, so in my thoroughly biased opinion it is the very best production I’ve seen, the staging is exceptional and you’ll be denying yourself a treat if you miss it.

Beyond that, the political context of this revival makes it more relevant than ever.

It is now a commonplace to say that we face a crisis of political representation. The democratic deficit is a condition in which corporate power and deracinated political parties fail to register the concerns of millions of working people.

In short we have arrived under late capitalism at a condition that existed in the very earliest days of capitalism, when effective democratic representation of any kind had not been invented.

In 1647 in Putney the Levellers and other radicals demanded an “Agreement of the People” that would establish popular sovereignty. In the debates that followed, Oliver Cromwell and his allies — the Grandees as they were called — told them that such democracy could not be granted because it was incompatible with property and would “tend to anarchy.”

That great debate is staged, in the words then used, as the central act of Churchill’s play. It is a bold move because she is a modernist writer, in that her own writing is spare and concise and the English spoken in the 17th century is not. But, somehow, this contrast works. And the often religiously inspired radicalism of characters and the real words of the Putney debates resonate.

That’s ultimately because the debate between democracy and property is now live again. It’s there in the struggle to defend the NHS, over privatisation and over the TTIP treaty. Indeed, it is at the core of the success or failure of the Greek government.

And if we want to talk about “British values” — and it appears that the government does — then this play should be a set text in every school and university in the land. For, in its pages, we find that those values include the right to revolution, the right not to be tried in secret courts, the right to freedom of religious observance untrammelled by state interference and the right to freedom of expression.

These values need new defenders, new Levellers. They won’t be found among the small artisans and their apprentices that formed the base of the Leveller movement in the 1640s but among working people who need democracy not only as an end itself but as an essential weapon in the fight to defend their livelihood from the modern Grandees, the CEOs of the corporations and their mercenaries in the political elite.

  • John Rees will be speaking at the Lyttleton theatre at 6pm next Thursday, May 21, in a National Theatre platform event Civil Wars: Ancient and Modern which precedes that night’s performance of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. The play runs until June 22, box office: nationaltheatre.org.uk
John Rees

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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