Arcola Theatre, London E8
Opened 16 July, 2010

Caryl Churchill’s 1976 dramatic collage-portrait of the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters and other millenarian radicals of the English Civil War period implicitly suggests correspondences with its own time, as does any revival. For instance, the account of the 1647 Putney Debates between disparate elements in Cromwell’s New Model Army may today elicit flip observations about the difficulties of coalition government. But this scene illustrates much more, such as the frequency with which reforms proposed in opposition are jettisoned in government, and the hyperbolical argument which equates changing one thing with overturning the entire established order (as Henry Ireton argued that abolishing the property qualification on voting would effectively abolish the concept of property).

Churchill shows us an age of almost unbelievable fluidity in the social order: thousands believed that the second coming of Christ was at hand and that it was their pressing duty to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth. In particular, many Ranters shared the notions of the earlier Brethren of the Free Spirit, that since God was in all things then they, being themselves divine, could not sin. This is shown in the play’s other lengthy scene, although director Polly Findlay makes of it almost as much of a debate as Putney, with little sense of the dynamism and licence of such beliefs. At this point things may drag, as they certainly did on the press night which was by then running half an hour behind schedule.

Each of the six performers plays a variety of roles, not limited by sex: Michelle Terry and Helena Lymbery each excel in the Putney sequence, as Ireton and one of the Leveller agitators respectively. Jamie Ballard also brings a conviction and intensity to his range of characters. (One pedantic point: the hypercorrection of voicing the “i” in “Parliament” is annoying at the best of times, but more so when the person mispronouncing it is supposed to be Parliament’s champion, Oliver Cromwell: a rare lapse in excellence for Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.) In the end, the play reminds us sombrely that such moments of potential pass: they either come to nothing in the first place, or the old order is soon restored. As Pete Townshend put it in a later episode of comparable apparent flux, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2010

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage