Belvoir St Theatre, April 14


Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play heaves with the energy of optimism and the anger of dashed dreams. It tells of the revolution that England almost had when its second civil war had resulted in execution of King Charles, and the proto-communism of the Levellers and Diggers was wedded to a democratic ideal and a zealous faith in the imminence of the Second Coming. This heady mix bled away to nothing under Parliament’s new authoritarianism, which preferred its Christianity nailed to the cross of private wealth and property-based enfranchisement.

These people lived by a savage religion that preached suffering as the pathway to salvation. Now that the king – their antichrist – had been eliminated, they believed Christ’s return in 1650 was a mathematical inevitability – and He would come as an Englishman, no less!

Sandy Greenwood, Brandon McClelland and Marco Chiappi. Top: Rashidi Edward. Photos: Teniola Komolafe.

Churchill’s language ripples with muscular poeticism, as when Cobbe, a Ranter (played by Rebecca Massey) prays to be freed from sin, and confesses that “words come out of my mouth like toads”. Massey and the rest of the eight-strong cast (performing over two dozen characters) wrap their tongues around such lines with relish. And you swiftly see why Eamon Flack, Belvoir’s artistic director, mated this play with Alana Valentine’s Wayside Bride in the company’s first-ever rep season: they share a concern for the people whose lot is to lick the crumbs from the floor rather than to sit at the feast.

Rich in characters and ideas, Churchill’s play has Star, a corn-merchant turned parliamentarian officer (Brandon McClelland), suggesting the roots of the civil war date back six centuries to William the Conqueror, Saxons having sweated for the Normans ever since. There’s the marvellous Marco Chiappi playing a Calvinist preacher whose fire-and-brimstone threats are howled down by the commendably heretical Hoskins (Angeline Penrith), questioning what sort of god would delight in cruelty. It has Claxton (Rashidi Edwards) enunciating the superb simile that just as humans can’t breathe in the sea, the working class can’t breathe in an England swimming with bailiffs, justices, hangmen, lawyers and mayors.

Rebecca Massey. Photos: Teniola Komolafe.

A flat spot comes with Churchill’s insistence on including transcripts of the 1647 Putney Debates, when Cromwell (Chiappi) and General Ireton (McClelland) listened impatiently to the case for genuine democracy, voiced most eloquently by Sexby (Arkia Ashraf): that if parliamentary soldiers have no right to the kingdom they won, then they were mere mercenaries. But the arguments are circular, and could have been presented with more regard for dramaturgy than verbatim history.

Edwards beautifully delivers Claxton’s exultant speech about the negation of sin (culminating in “I rush towards the infinite nothing that is God”), and Chiappi chews up the butcher’s juicy monologue denying meat to those who have fattened themselves at the expense of the poor.

Co-directed by Flack and Hannah Goodwin, the production has a highly theatrical staging of the Levellers being crushed, and features enthralling music played by Marcus Whale and composer Alyx Dennison, with harmonised singing from the actors. Most striking of all is the sheer potency of the actors as an ensemble (completed by Emily Goddard and Sandy Greenwood), at least partly as a consequence of meeting the challenge of performing this and Wayside Bride in repertory. The experiment has been a considerable success.

As the dreams of a New Jerusalem in England fade, the fatalistic Hoskins suggests that what happened was that “Jesus Christ did come, and nobody noticed.” At the end Edwards holds a sign declaring, “I can’t believe we’re still fighting this shit.” Amen.

Until May 28.