What do you do after a revolution? Tyrant toppled, lives sacrificed, people feeling entitled to reward, reformers aflame with rapidly diversifying ideas. Meanwhile things have to be organized, the starving fed, heroes re-examined, laws set up. We watch the factions and fanaticisms  of the Arab Spring and forget that it happened here once: our democracy was not born all at once , or easily.

Caryl Churchill’s play about the aftermath of the English Civil War draws on the pamphlets and movements of 1646 to 1660,   on Cromwell’s Parliament-men, on the factions of Ranters and Levellers, and the Diggers who moved onto St Georges hill and simply began digging it up because “True Freedom lies where a man finds his nourishment, and that is in the earth” .

Everything was shaken, even more than in the Reformation years. The idea of Divine Law was overturned by the defeat of King Charles I and his imprisonment; in the Putney debates of 1647 impassioned intellectual and religious questions were raised, resonant today in the age of Occupy protests and anti-globalization rallies. How can all men be equal if some have more property? Must all have the right to choose their representative, or only some? Is a person bound to obey laws he or she doesn’t morally approve of? “If a foreigner dwell here, shall he be content to be subjected to the Law?”. Meanwhile, out among the rabble and rant of dissent in the fields, wild-eyed starvelings declared that nothing was barred, not thieving or sexual freedom, because everything was new.
When Churchill’s knotty, impressionistic, tough-going play was last produced in London it was with a cast of six, switching roles. This one – launching Rufus Norris’ leadership of the NT and directed by Lyndsey Turner – has a cast of 19 plus a community ensemble of forty more. Es Devlin’s set is a vast table , at first loaded with meats and exotic fruits and surrounded by grandees, later a bare board around which white-collared Puritans sit scratching at documents. At one point the Diggers actually take it up plank by plank to start digging. Finally a ragged starving  remainder argues around a brazier, wondering why the Second Coming of Christ did not, after all , usher in the new Jerusalem as per plan.

The look of it is fine, the populace being clad in a nicely vague rural-timeless-modern manner by Soutra Gilmour . It does create a sense of eavesdropping on the far past. The moments of song are stirring and there are undoubtedly some excellent performances:  a headlong barmy Joshua James, an impressive Trystan Gravelle, Alan Williams as Gerald Winstanley and as a fine striking drunk, and Ashley McGuire immensely touching and restrained as a vagrant woman, Margaret Brotherton. And I have a pretty high tolerance, not universally shared, for 17c political prose: got a real frisson when Sargon Yelda as the Leveller Colonel Rainborough rises at the Putney debates with that great affirmation that “the poorest he that is in England has a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly Sir, I think it clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government..”
Tremendous. And you can see why Rufus Norris decided to programme it, his first show, in election season. But for all the fine execution and the unquestioned if oddball genius of Caryl Churchill, as a play it fails to ascend the heights. Too wordily dense, too much in love with the verbatim, and frankly a touch arrogant in its unwillingness to explain itself courteously to audiences short on homework. The birth of modern Parliamentary democracy deserved a more democratic approach.

box office 0207 452 3000 to 22 June
Sponsor: Travelex Rating: three

3 Meece Rating



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