While many theatres are staging election-related plays in the next three weeks, the National Theatre has shown a flash of genius by reviving a work that confronts all the big questions which politicians have failed to put on the campaign agenda for May 7.
Caryl Churchill's Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, originally staged at the Royal Court in 1975, delves into the history of the Civil War to ask how we are governed and how wealth is shared. No play could be more relevant to the 2015 general election.
The fact that the National's new director Rufus Norris has picked a play about political and economic equality to launch his reign as the new monarch of the South Bank may not be surprising. A modest revival of this half-forgotten work might have slotted neatly into one of the theatre's smaller spaces as a respectful nod to one of our greatest living playwrights.
Instead this text-based piece, much of it quoting directly from contemporary 17th century archives, has been given a gloriously operatic large-scale production in the Lyttelton. Director Lyndsey Turner and designer Es Devlin (the team responsible for the hit play Chimerica) have created a visually stunning production which starts the post-Hytner era on a note of bold ambition.
Later in the season Norris has programmed a revival of Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good, which like Churchill's play originated in research-based workshops at the Royal Court led by the great Max Stafford-Clark.
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire was originally written for six actors, no set, and a handful of chairs. I saw a small-scale National Theatre touring production in the 1990s which followed this pattern, and I remember going away rather underwhelmed. But in this production the curtain opens on a breathtaking scene -- a giant table laden with a feast for gluttons, an outsize roast pig as its centrepiece. Seated around the table are the placeholders of Charles I's ancien regime, tucking in to a grand banquet. As the play progresses, the banquet is removed and the table becomes a bare wooden stage. After the interval, the boards are removed to reveal bare earth. Men start to dig the soil. The costumes are a blend of the 17th century and the present, and also hint at crucial periods in between -- the 19th century Chartists and the 20th century Jarrow march. A visual mashup of different periods can be a perilous idea, but here designer Soutra Gilmour hits the target.
The cast of around 20 is reinforced by more than 40 actors from the National's Community Company. The result transforms the play into a spectacle, but one in which Churchill's text and the individual stories of her characters never get lost. In fact the director and designer manage to enhance the meaning of Churchill's carefully written words. I'm normally the first to criticise over-elaborate sets which overpower the actors, but the Turner-Devlin team knows how and when to keep it simple. They have created a set on which the actors' individual performances shine through.
The use of a large ensemble scales the play up into something that its original creators probably never envisaged 40 years ago. But it works, because the political and economic questions the play raises are more urgent than ever.
In the 1640s, the gap between rich and poor is getting wider. Equality has become a dirty word. Outsiders, scroungers and benefit cheats are being blamed. 'Have you been told you get something for nothing here?' a Justice of the Peace asks a homeless vagrant before ordering her to return to her birthplace. Are we in 1640 or in 2015?
The millennarian promise of 'Heaven on Earth' becomes a search to replace hierarchy and deference to authority with individual moral conscience; submission to one's betters turns into a radical search for representative democracy. The Putney debates hinge on whether that democracy should be equally open to all. In the words of the Leveller Colonel Thomas Rainborough, 'Every man in England ought not to be exempted from the choice of those who are to make laws for him to live under, and for him, for aught I know, to lose his life by.' But the men of property win out. As the play progresses, the radical impulses of the English revolution are stifled, the men of Parliament move smoothly into the estates of the dispossessed Royalists, and the poor end up disenfranchised and cheated of their birthright.
At this point I shall own up to being the author 15 years ago of a fat tome on constitutional reform. Writing it, I came to the same conclusion as Caryl Churchill -- that the promise of democracy in Britain has largely remained just a promise. Economic inequality has grown since she wrote this seminal play, and so has political inequality. Our current election campaign doesn't tackle this agenda. Politicians prefer to muddle through. As the unreformed British state staggers on into an uncertain future, with Scotland drifting towards the exit, politicians bicker over trivialities while the real problems of how we are governed are swept under the carpet. Abolish first-past-the-post voting? Elect the second chamber? Don't look to our current politicians to raise these big questions. Labour has always seen constitutional reform as a second-order issue, fit only for anoraks; the Conservatives told us in 2010 that the UK political system was 'broken' but then blocked all attempts to change it; and the Liberal Democrats, having comprehensively bungled their big opportunity to push through political reform as part of a coalition government, would now rather talk about anything else. The price of their inactivity will be the Scots withdrawing from a system which clearly no longer works for them.
The Light Shining in Buckinghamshire shines on all of us.