Friday, April 24, 2015


National Theatre at the Lyttleton

Here we are, on St George's day, between the Magna Carta celebrations and the General Election. What better time to revisit Caryl Churchill's 1976 piece about the political aftermath of the Civil War. Poor relief, an economy on the rocks, corruption and hypocrisy in government.
This is the England of Levellers and Ranters, where, 600 years on, the ruling classes are still thought of as a foreign foe. Where all women are considered damned. Where religion, despite everything, still holds almost everyone in its thrall.
The stunning first image [Es Devlin's sumptuous design, glowingly lit by Bruno Poet] is a vast banqueting hall. The table – the size of a tennis court, it seems – groans under the weight of rich food. The nobles are sitting around it, enjoying the feast. The cloth is also the stage; the soldiers, the revolutionaries, the dispossessed, move around amongst the huge platters. It's a wonderful conceit, cleverly followed through, as the cloth is removed, then the boards torn up by the Diggers to reveal the earth of England beneath.
Churchill's play is a series of scenes, some brief, some, like the verbatim Putney debates, a little long - “we have been a great while upon this matter ...”. But these confrontations, between Cromwell with his right hand man Ireton and the soldiers and radicals, saw the forging of our parliamentary system. Orwell would have appreciated the back-tracking and the fudging. Not to mention Daniel Flynn's parson, who, like the incumbent at Bray, is keen to keep his living under the new order, as a parliament man becomes the new squire.
As the debates move wearily to a close, the leadership decides to set up a committee, and, suddenly, there they are in black and white, the Puritans at the back of the stage. After the interval, it is their turn to take their places around that broad table, scribbling away as the Diggers rip up the floor.
It's a huge cast, augmented by a community company, and it's wonderful to see them throng the stage, singing their psalms and their songs of freedom. And many excellent performances – Leo Bill's dogged Ireton, Steffan Rhodri as Sexby [and a truculent butcher refusing to sell meat to the bloated rich], Ashley McGuire as a down-trodden, hopeless vagrant, Trystan Gravelle as Briggs, and Joshua James stunningly convincing as the ranting preacher Cobbe.
In Lyndsey Turner's production, design and costume details remind us that the struggle we are witnessing is not confined to one time or one place. Nowhere more so than in a second debate, where vagrants and outcasts noisily discuss the notion of property and of God. A reminder, too, that this was originally, and in the recent Arcola revival, a chamber piece, far removed from Turner's sprawling epic theatre.
But the Lyttleton stage does allow some superb visuals; after our protagonists sketch their lives post-Restoration, turn and leave, the final scene sees one lone idealist on the empty, sodden field, as the light shines out towards us, and a flock of birds, alarmed, flies unseen over our heads.

production photograph: Marc Brenner

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