“Was it ever our choice to be the parish church of high finance?”
I was surprised at the number of people who didn’t come back after the interval of The Red Lion on Friday night as I was enjoying myself but on reflection, you can see that for all its lyricism (or indeed because of it) Patrick Marber’s writing doesn’t really stretch far beyond the world of football in which it is set. A similar narrowness of vision struck me about Steve Waters’ Temple at the Donmar Warehouse too, its exploration of the place of the church in the modern world does just that without substantially delving beyond that into whether the church should have a place in the modern world – it preaches to the choir somewhat.
A fictionalised account of the October 2011 events that saw the Occupy London camp force what not even the Blitz could manage – the closure of St Paul’s Cathedral. Starting at the end of a fortnight of fraught hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing which saw the doors eventually reopen but the canon resign, Waters places us at the heart the behind-the-scenes soul-searching. This he does through Simon Russell Beale’s dean (his boss) who finds himself thrust unwillingly into the spotlight and having to tread a most careful path through a treacherous landscape – can the church be party to a forced eviction, what leadership can such a venerable institution truly offer, do its duties lie with the City or the citizens?
In Russell Beale’s deeply empathetic hands, these debates seem anguished and real and the way in which he converts an innate unlikeability into tragic pathos is nothing short of miraculous, it’s a privilege to watch him work in such an intimate space. And he bounces wonderfully off the other church-based characters – Malcolm Sinclair’s supercilious bishop, Anna Calder-Marshall’s achingly powerful verger, Paul Higgins’ principled canon. The outside world fares less well with Waters’ characterisations proving sketchy as in the case of Shereen Martin’s lawyer or altogether far-fetched in the credulity-stretching PA, albeit played with skill by Rebecca Humphries.
And that’s where the problem lies for me, in the reliance of a worldview that doesn’t challenge that the church has some role to play in our society. The arguments of the play are eloquently made (initially at least, Howard Davies does let the pace sag as the play progresses and the energy levels drop) but they didn’t fire anything inside of me to reconsider my own opinions. So what you’re left with is a monumental performance from Simon Russell Beale and for 90 minutes, even on a baking hot summer’s eve, that is more than enough.