1990s >> 1997 >> no-1112-april-1997

Theatre Reviews: ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)’, & ‘A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire’

A shining light (and a dim one)

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), The Reduced Shakespeare Company, Criterion Theatre.

A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill, National Theatre.

Many local theatres can no longer afford to recruit a company of actors and keep them for a season or so. As a result repertory theatre is slowly dying. Visit your local theatre and you are more likely than not to see something played by a touring company: a group of actors performing the same show, week-by-week, across the length and breadth of the country. In the past month I have seen three such shows. Two of them may likely soon appear in your neck of the woods. One I think you might wish to avoid like the proverbial plague; the other will likely enthral even if it doesn’t delight.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company are currently appearing at the Criterion Theatre in London. But their show The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), is so successful that a second company is currently on tour. I caught their show in Bury St. Edmonds; it was an excruciating experience.

I like satire, irony and farce, but not when they are managed as unimaginatively and crudely as here. Shakespeare is ripe for entertaining comment and diverting song as was recently apparent in a charming little show “The Shakespeare Revue” which also toured widely. But The Complete Works is the “cor blimey” humour of the Sun directed savagely at one of the giants of literature. It is someone who can barely play the piano parodying Mozart; a drunken karaoke performer mimicking the Beatles. In the theatre, as in the rest of life, I am ever the optimist. I’ve thought about leaving before, but always stayed. Three weeks ago was a first: we walked out at half-time.

In contrast A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, by Caryl Churchill, makes for an illuminating if, finally, a rather melancholy evening. Written in 1976 and currently revived by the National Theatre, and on tour, the play is about those early proto-socialists, the Levellers and the Diggers. The play’s title celebrates a Digger pamphlet of the same name, which was circulating at the time of the English Civil War in the late 1640s.

Writing a forward to the text Caryl Churchill talks about the time after Charles I had been defeated when “anything seemed possible”. And she goes on: “The play shows the excitement of people taking hold of their own lives, and their gradual betrayal as those who led them realised that freedom could not be had without (the ownership of) property being destroyed.”

In nearly two dozen short scenes we are offered a series of cameos of life in England at the time of the Civil War. We see first a hypocritical clergyman patronising his servant; then two cynical JPs sentencing a woman accused of vagrancy to be stripped to the waist and beaten to the bounds of the parish; and then a man joining the army to fight “with Christ’s saints for the commonwealth”; and so on. But at the heart of the play is the dramatic realisation of the Putney Debates of 1647, when Cromwell and his generals met representatives of the Levellers.

If this debate grips and excites as it examines ideas about democracy, freedom and the supposed rights of property, the rest of the evening droops somewhat in comparison. This is not entirely Ms Churchill’s fault. She has faithfully represented both the fate of the Levellers and the emergence of the anarchic Ranters, and in doing so she seems true to the demands of historical accuracy.

But the imperatives of drama are not the same as those of history, and it is possible to see ways in which the structure of the play might have been altered to give proceedings a stronger narrative line, and to make the key ideas more accessible to a contemporary audience who, as Caryl Churchill herself observes, are unlikely to have heard about the Diggers and the Levellers. Moreover, if the play had ended with that classic dramatic device of an epilogue, the struggles of the Levellers could have been given some kind of historical perspective, and we could then have seen evidence of the continuing struggle of the socialist movement for democracy, freedom and the end of private property ownership. But enough of the cavils. This is a play to see.

Michael Gill

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