“What would be the proper Christian thing to do?”
Having hardly any willpower at all is not a good thing for a theatre addict trying to cut down and having decided that I would forego the David Hare season in Sheffield, all it took was one pint after Snake in the Grass and a casually whispered suggestion to sneak a day off work and off we popped to the Crucible to see Racing Demon. It is a play focused on the redoubtable institution of the Church of England and the battles it faces in remaining relevant to a modern society and what effective help can they provide in times of tangible hardship. It also whips through the pressures of the ordination of women and the acceptance of gays in the Church through looking at a team of ministers in a South London parish.
Daniel Evans has assembled a truly top-notch cast here, fully fleshing out the expertly characterised clergymen whether it was Jamie Parker’s evangelical but passionate young curate who stirs things up from the moment of his arrival, Matthew Cottle’s kindly Streaky who plods on with an appealing honesty or Ian Gelder’s superb Harry, being hounded out of the closet by a rapacious tabloid journalist. But even the bishops, perceived as the ‘enemy’ here, played by Jonathan Coy and Mark Tandy are powerfully persuasive as we come to understand the larger pressures they feel in a Church under threat from all angles. But it is Malcolm Sinclair’s central Lionel whose dilemma dominates proceedings and he is never less than utterly convincing as a man who is determined to do great good even whilst his faith wavers.
Certain aspects, like the gay priest being hounded by the media sub-plot felt rather dated (and the sexual chemistry strangely muted, it really was like watching something from the 90s!), but largely many of the issues it dealt with, of an organisation in crisis about its very existence, were universal enough to keep the play markedly relevant. However for me, it relied a little too much on individual speechifying rather than creating a truly believable, well-integrated slice of life onstage. The prayer-based soliloquies were effective at revealing some of the inner motivations of the characters, but often the carefully constructed arguments which marked many of the scenes, no matter how thoughtfully delivered, came across as too intelligently considered rather than as real words that could have been spoken by real people: Emma Hamilton’s Frances is the most guilty here, her character being used to fulfil too many counterbalancing roles and she did well to inject some passion into a difficult part.
I left Racing Demon thinking that it had been very well performed and agreed with my erstwhile companion that it was very well written, but I have to say it never really moved me in the way that I wanted or provided the thrill of entertainment, it was a little too cerebral for that and as a subject matter, the state of theology in an increasingly secular world is not one to which I would normally gravitate. The sense of distance was nurtured by Tom Rogers’ spare staging: Tim Mitchell’s lighting design made great use of this in creating ecclesiastical spaces both public and private, but the lack of intimacy also sometimes worked against creating emotional involvement. Still, I’m glad that I made the trip to Sheffield to see this, a play that made it into the National Theatre’s top 100 plays of the century no less, and an opportunity to start to make my own mind up about Hare’s writing.