Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is a play set in the 1640s and centering on the English Revolution.
Its title is from a pamphlet by the Diggers, one the most radical groups to emerge out of the tumult of revolutionary movements of the time.
The Diggers took over land, most famously at St George’s Hill in Surrey, with the aim of building egalitarian rural communities abolishing private land ownership.
Polly Findlay has directed a new production of the play, which is on at the Arcola Theatre in east London until 7 August.
She told Socialist Worker, “The play has something particular to say about our current political moment. At its centre is a discussion of the nature of our democracy.
“These ideals were founded in the 1640s – with debates about how democracy should operate and how voting and rights can be organised.
“Following the Magna Carta in the 13th century, this is the moment when the idea of human rights is first officially aired in public debate.”
Since Caryl Churchill wrote the play in 1976, a major attack has taken place on Marxist and left wing interpretations that see the upheavals of the 1640s as a class struggle that led to a revolution.
Anyone now studying the period at niversity is likely to be told it was a civil war between rival sections of the elite over power or a different interpretation of religion.
“It was a revolution,” said Polly. “The play focuses on how ordinary people coped as their own personal domestic worlds were turned upside down.
“Only once, in the central scene about the Putney debates, do the top players on the parliamentary side – Oliver Cromwell and others – appear.”
“We also see how religious beliefs were used to harness radical ideas.”
At St Mary’s Church in Putney in 1647, officers and soldiers of parliament’s New Model Army debated who should have the vote.
Cromwell and Henry Ireton, a leading army general, argued the vote should be restricted to men of property.
More radical forces, like the Levellers, had a significant appeal to many rank and file soldiers, who wanted more people to be given the right to vote.
It was a crucial moment in the struggle about who would be the real beneficiaries of the New Model Army’s victories over the king’s forces. It was a debate about the very meaning of freedom.
Light Shining also give voices to the experience of ordinary women in the revolution.
Women had little independence in early 17th century England. The revolution leads women to challenge this.
Polly said, “The events of the period were ahead of their time. I see a parallel with the First and Second World Wars, when women took jobs men had left behind to go and fight.
“There was a little moment of opportunity – a chance to challenge expectations about how women and men lived their lives.
“But the restoration of the monarchy meant the lid was put back on. It was a lost opportunity.” The radical wing of the revolution was defeated.
Polly added, “I think God was replaced by money. The market came to replace the Old Testament. Today we make anti-banker jokes, then people made anti-priest jokes.
“There’s no idea that the market is about humans making decisions.”
But Polly adds that the radicals, like the Levellers, Diggers and many others, looked to a much more democratic way of organising society:
“It was a moment of genuine alternatives. The defeat of the radicals wasn’t inevitable, but perhaps it wasn’t surprising.”
I asked, what can theatre bring to the way we think about the English Revolution? “It offers the audience physical proximity,’ replied Polly. “This gives it the ability to constantly surprise, more than any other artistic form.
“You never know what comes round the corner. That’s what the revolution was like, so I think it’s the prefect medium to explore its meaning.”
COMPETITION: We have two pairs of tickets up for grabs for Light Shining in Buckinghamshire valid until 31 July, answer this question: Who was the leader of the Diggers? Email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org by Sunday 25 July 2010. The play is showing at the Arcola Theatre, London. Go to www.arcolatheatre.com