This revival of an early (1976) play by Caryl Churchill provides a cracking evening's theatre at the Arcola. After watchnig two over-designed RSC shows at Stratford where the set dominated the actors, I loved the spare intensity of this in-the-round production. The stage is a cross-shaped dirt pit and the scenery is kept to a minimum; the sober black and white costumes have a 17th century style but the white shirts and black trousers blend easily into a modern context. There's a minimum of scenery, some well-judged sound design and a crisp, intense playing style. Churchill explores the religious fanaticism of the 1640s in a way that seems even more relevant today than when she wrote the play; she moves on to the famous Putney debates, which have lost none of their contemporary feel. The play has little in the way of story or character, being a series of scenes and texts, some transcribed directly from historical sources. In fact, it's an early example of that fashionable genre, verbatim theatre, but lacking the ponderous literalism of more recent examples. The cast of six, under Polly Findlay's direction, rise to the challenge, with Michelle Terry and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith leading the way. All of the actors play several roles, switching easily from male to female and back again.
Churchill's play comes up fresh as a daisy, having perhaps gained in meaning since Max Stafford-Clark first directed it at the Traverse in Edinburgh 34 years ago. Religious fanaticism is more relevant than then, but the millenarian dream of revolution and equality and the idea of property as theft have faded. Churchill's play is unlikely to get a better production than this one.