Sunday 26 July 2015

Temple at the Donmar, or, What does God require of us?

I booked for this play mainly because the cast included the great Simon Russell Beale, partly because of the venue, and not at all because of the subject matter. This was because an element of that subject, the Occupy Movement, led me to anticipate a lecture. In fact Steve Waters has written a thought provoking, funny (including a beauty of a mobile phone gag, and nice skewerings of twitter and Rowan Williams) and often moving play. The centre cannot hold, but it is a telling reminder of the value of trying, and the pain inflicted on those in that centre.

The focus of Waters's narrative is the Dean of St Paul's (played with a repressed, tortured brilliance by Russell Beale). He's caught in the middle of a number of louder, certain voices. Neither Waters nor Russell Beale commit the error of making him a saint. He's as fallible as everybody else on stage, but that doesn't lessen the value of his example. The character also makes an unexpectedly moving case for a particular type of Church of English minister. A quiet, gentle faith, yet with a hidden power, that perhaps does still have something to say.

Russell Beale is ably supported by an excellent ensemble. I particularly enjoyed Malcolm Sinclair's ghastly Bishop of London (there's a gem of a comparison between the Bishop floating free of any building and the Dean tethered to his) and Anna Calder-Marshall's old fashioned, yet in her way moving, Virger. A particularly beautifully written moment (there are many) follows her memory drifting back to St Paul's still standing amid the horrors of Blitzed London. Shereen Martin is also spot on as the arrogant city lawyer.

The other two parts providing, to an extent, the Occupy side of the argument, are slightly less effective. Both Paul Higgins's Canon Chancellor and Rebecca Humphries as the Dean's temporary PA are sometimes in danger of tipping into caricature. Waters's writing is just less convincing when it comes to dealing sympathetically with Occupy (and maybe the fact that I was not really in sympathy with them myself enhanced my enjoyment of the play), but it is refreshing to have that perspective be more marginalised, and Waters does finally have interesting things to investigate about both these characters. I thought the play could have got nearer to exploring what both of them really want. In different ways we leave them in uncertainty, rather more than we do the Dean.

Howard Davies (like Russell Beale presently detached from his more usual recent home on the South Bank) does excellent work on the directorial front. There is superb use of stillness and the small gesture. Physical contact is frequently powerfully weighted, whether it's Russell Beale oppressed by Sinclair's determination to hug him (and the quite different parallel hug with Higgins much later), or his and Calder-Marshall's twin shying away from sympathetic hands on shoulders. There's much telling commentary on being reserved.

This is a powerful evening in the theatre and certainly deserves further life beyond its Donmar run (though it's also the kind of show that I suspect is unlikely to get it). It is also a reminder of the considerable talents of two regulars of Hytner's National whom Rufus Norris has so far chosen not to summon to his aid. Hopefully they will be back there soon.

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