OK, I admit it: I nodded off during the first night of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, though fortunately my companion quickly roused me. But no, the play wasn't to blame: I'd just arrived back earlier that day after an overnight flight from New York, which I'd followed by a day of teaching. Audiences, including and especially critics, need to be fresh for the task and challenge of the evening ahead - no more so than when watching a dense, intense Caryl Churchill play, so I failed myself and the play.
Being an audience member comes with responsibilities - staying awake is one of them. And as we are constantly reminded, one of the even simpler ones is to make sure your mobile phone is off. Within minutes of the play starting however, we were treated to a ringtone rendition of 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring,' that came - it turned out - from the mobile of Nick Hytner, attending the first National Theatre production he'd not programmed himself since he handed over the reigns of the running of the theatre to Rufus Norris.
I'd be tempted to say it was one of the more dramatic occurrences of the evening, except that Lyndsey Turner's production tops it with a scene in which the stage is populated by more than 50 actors. Given that the last fringe revival of the play at the Arcola in 2010 featured a cast of just six, that reveals a rather extreme profligacy on the part of the National (though some 44 of the 61 total acting company, it turns out, is a community company recruited through the National's Learning Department).
As it is, Turner - one of our most interesting directors, working with the consistently thrilling designer Es Devlin - conjures a rich, detailed portrait of 1640s England, as the country stood on the threshold of a new political future that followed the English Civil War. But though it is full of atmosphere, the play is more words than drama. Great matters are at stake; but it is endlessly debated here more than physically engaged with.
The result is undeniably hard work - for the audience as much as the actors. So go, if you do, ready to mentally engage, and to do that, you need to be fresher than I was.
"It’s easier to admire the piece than love it. Devised in the mid-Seventies, it adopts a funky, sometimes frustrating approach to history: non-linear storytelling and elliptical utterances run riot."
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph
"I’d recommend the production to anyone who doesn’t know the play, while still feeling that it works best when presented with a minimalist austerity that matches Churchill’s text."
Michael Billington for The Guardian