British playwright Caryl Churchill has always been ahead of the curve. Light Shining in Buckinghamshire – a play about faith and futility during the tail end of the 17th-century English Civil War – premiered in England in 1976. Focusing on the radical Levellers, Diggers and Ranters, Churchill explores the rise and fall of their dreams for a post-monarchic England.
Now on at Belvoir, co-directed by the company’s artistic director Eamon Flack and Hannah Goodwin, it’s a play that keenly feels the weight of change crushed underfoot. It is both a history lesson and prescient warning: Churchill sees that revolutionary light on the horizon and tries to capture it before the world can snuff it out.
In 1976, change was in the air: Britain’s Black Power movement was on the rise and union activists were facing increasing opposition. The Gay Liberation Front and Campaign for Homosexual Equality wrote manifestos and agitated for legal reform. But the conservative stranglehold of Margaret Thatcher was also on the rise, pushing people back inside historic barriers of race, sexuality, poverty and class.
Churchill has always been a radical voice. Since she began writing for theatre in 1958, she has become one of the most significant playwrights of the modern era. She has written more than 50 plays and is still writing in her 80s – her latest play, What If If Only, a 20-minute meditation on grief, inevitabilities and possible futures, made its onstage debut in September last year.
A restlessly inventive writer, her plays vary widely in structure, form and conceit. Her writing is formally bold: 2012’s Love and Information, for example, is a series of vignettes about communication, meaning-making and human connection ordered in seven sections where the scenes within each section can be played in any order a director decides. A random section of scenes may be added anywhere in the play and the cast of 100 characters can be played by any number of actors or any kind of person.
Her work is all dazzle but it’s backed up with substance. Always political and full of keenly observed life, Churchill is a true dramatist who embraces the possibilities of live theatre. Every play is an opportunity to create new words, new shapes and new realities.
Her plays teem with magical realism and narrative slippage; her stories transform and transcend as they unfold. Serious Money, about the sharemarket, is told in rhyming couplets to emphasise tragedy. Mad Forest – about the months before the Romanian revolution – includes angels, vampires and ghosts. The fragmented wordplay of The Skriker looks at post-partum psychosis as fairytale horror.
But no matter what structure or style or diction she chooses, one quality makes Churchill’s work soar. She relentlessly, thoughtfully, generously acts as a social barometer, finding our pressure points and illuminating them, giving them validation and voice in the moments before they explode.
Belvoir’s production is in a repertory season with Wayside Bride, a new play by Australian verbatim theatremaker Alana Valentine that charts the Reverend Ted Noffs’ clash with the Methodist Church over his progressive work at the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross. Together, the two plays grapple with questions of faith, human connection, care and doubt, and consider how the wreckage of national infrastructures fails entire communities.
Light Shining runs for two hours without an interval, although one is written into the script. This bogs the play – and its audience – in unwelcome stasis and removes us from a greater sense of the passage of time. The play is structured in vignettes populated by characters caught between ideals and reality. Here the ensemble is dressed in muted modern costumes that suggest, as each company member plays multiple roles, the losing battle fought by the revolutionaries: a person can believe in liberation one moment and oppress their neighbour in the next.
The costuming also makes it difficult for audiences to parse who is speaking and why, and which side we may be hearing from. Without sure directorial footing to guide us it’s difficult to become invested; on opening night, direct pleas for change and their conservative counterarguments were met with sudden, uncomfortable laughter.
When we can’t understand the purpose of the language in a Churchill play, something essential is lost. She is a master of expression – sometimes playful, often poetic and always ambitious. Light Shining’s language is dense and heightened, borrowing phrasing and rhythms from the historical period in which the play is set and coupling it with vivid imagery. Speeches erupt in bursts of elegantly structured feeling through syntactical repetition, creating momentum and a growing emotional fervour.
Putting this play in repertory with Valentine’s play – which employs contemporary, conversational language gathered largely from transcripts, with straightforward, plain address – does Churchill’s work a disservice. It’s as though the cast is unable to live inside her words. The lines are often spoken with wooden formality, as if the language is a problem rather than the play’s great asset.
Towards the end of the first act Churchill sets aside her stylised language for transcripts of the Putney Debates. In Belvoir’s production, the historical record seems to anchor the actors to the play’s ideals: the performances become grounded, studied, complex and the ensemble and co-directors do their clearest work of making meaning.
When it’s not propelled by debate, however, the production flounders. As soldiers are recruited and the coming of Christ is promised, the company falls into dirge. We feel the hope the Diggers and Levellers had for a better life post-revolution far less than we dread the coming punishment, even in the moments that it looks like they might succeed. Alyx Dennison and Marcus Whale’s gorgeous live music, which leads the ensemble in occasional choral song, heightens the sense of despair and solemnity.
This production starts weary and ends weary. By the time the revolutionaries are shockingly attacked – deterred as in a modern protest with bursts of water from a fire hose – we’re already numb.
Still, in the second act of the play a sprinkle of short scenes with legible emotion break through the grey. Perhaps the strongest is when a butcher refuses to sell meat to a regular customer. Churchill’s language finally lands with a thud in our chests: “You’ve had your meat. You’ve had their meat … You’ve stolen their meat … You cram yourselves with their children’s meat. You cram yourselves with their dead children.”
In many ways the success of this scene, even in a production that feels ill-equipped to deal with the play’s language, points towards a truth about Churchill’s influence on Australian stages. Just as this scene illuminates how the rich feed on the livelihoods of the poor with language that hits home here, in a country with deep injustices, Australian artists have turned to Churchill’s prescient plays to explore current anxieties: gender inequality, colonisation, sexual oppression. Sydney Theatre Company alone has produced three of Churchill’s plays since 2015.
Nakkiah Lui, one of the most produced playwrights in the country in pre-Covid-19 times, might be the closest we have to Churchill. Lui writes the personal and the political through a variety of genres, from romantic comedy to superheroic vengeance to political satire. Her work outside theatre builds on this same appetite for inventiveness. She speaks directly to our hearts by embracing new forms and layering difficult conversations with comedy. Another might be Patricia Cornelius, who employs a weaponised language of startling beauty that often focuses on women rarely granted the dignity of their story on the stage.
Australian women writers were seldom given the room to speak as directly as Churchill. It took until 2019 for more mainstage productions to be led by women than men. Even in Britain, Churchill has often been diminished in favour of her male peers: in 1986, after Cloud 9 and Top Girls, a national critic named Alan Ayckbourn as England’s “leading feminist dramatist ”.
But as the work continues to diversify onstage voices, there’s still plenty of room for Churchill’s legacy – for work that catches people with their arms outstretched in a moment rich with change, reaching for a vision that might reveal a new and better way to be alive.
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and Wayside Bride are at Belvoir, Sydney, until May 29.
LITERATURE Shakespeare on the River Festival
Stratford, Victoria, until May 14
VISUAL ART Brett Whiteley: Blue and White
Brett Whiteley Studio, Sydney, until October 16
State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, Perth, May 5-15
LITERATURE Brisbane Writers Festival
State Library of Queensland, Brisbane, May 3-8
THEATRE We Take Back Our Mother Tongues
Arts House, Melbourne, May 6-7
EXHIBITION Ancient Greeks
National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until May 1
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "A dazzling hope".
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