“Certainty is a state of mind, faith is a state of heart. There’s a marked difference, I believe.”
I wavered about the status of this review/not-a-review as the performance of the Royal Court’s The Faith Machine that I saw had to be delivered under house lights without any of Neil Austin’s lighting design since a heavy downpour in the afternoon had put the lighting rig out of action which was a shame as Mark Thompson’s design looks intriguing. Indeed, the rain continued to drip onto the stage throughout the show and so the actors had a fair amount to contend with whilst still working things out in this preview. We did still pay full price though so I am not feeling totally forgiving: so I’ve called it a review, but the focus will mainly be on the play itself rather than the production.
Alexi Kaye Campbell scored a massive hit with his first play The Pride back in 2008 and the play recently had its regional premiere which I was able to catch in Sheffield and I was vastly impressed by the maturity of the writing and its refusal to settle for easy answers. Thus the anticipation for The Faith Machine was quite high, especially with a cracking cast like the one put together here for Jamie Lloyd’s production.
The play has a sprawling epic range: its six scenes shifting in a non-linear fashion from various points between 1998 and 2011 and from New York to the UK and a remote Greek island. At the heart of its narrative are big questions about what it means to believe in something, whether love, religion or a capitalist lifestyle and what people are willing to sacrifice for it or more aptly, at what point will they draw the line. Whether it is the thorny issue of homosexuality in the Anglican Church, or working with a company with an extremely dubious ethical record, Kaye Campbell here makes explicit a connection between personal and the wider social responsibility we all carry.
This he does with a fair amount of wit and pointed humour as the play opens on Tom and Sophie’s troubled relationship, her extreme liberal principles at odds with his decision to leave his idealism behind and as we flick quickly back to their beginnings, we see the influence of her father, an Anglican bishop. These opening scenes set up the premise well, the broad canvas suggesting a complex layering of the arguments, but I have to admit to being disappointed with the way it played out in the end. The thrust of the play ends up being pretty straight-forward and disappointingly unambiguous in its message. Indeed, the characterisation of one lead character in particular feels far too one-dimensional and more like an ideological position as opposed to a living person. This in turn has a serious impact on the emotional heft of the final act for me which ultimately felt like a waste of the potential of the play which opens with hints of metaphysical promise but ends up really rather prosaic.
Perhaps my expectations were unrealistically high, perhaps it was the odd nature of a performance with a constant drip just inches from our faces, but I ended up disappointed upon leaving the theatre. The tangential incorporation of 9/11 feels a little forced as a catalyst and something of an unnecessary addition; the proximity of the 10th anniversary perhaps leading this? It is largely well acted: Ian McDiarmid is predictably brilliant as the bishop wrestling with his more conservative colleagues and later with his own internal demons and the incredibly hard-working Kyle Soller has a mighty good go at Tom, forced to deal with a decade of recriminations as a result of his choices: Hayley Atwell’s Sophie was the character I had much difficulty with, her performance not quite able to overcome the limitations I saw in the writing. There’s also some canny doubling from Jude Akuwudike and a brilliant comic but warming performance from Bronagh Gallagher as a fabulously blunt Ukrainian housekeeper. If you get to see the production in its full glory, do let me know what you thought of it. I’ll be interested to see what others make of it, as well as hearing what you think of the writing.