Church and State
Whenever I’m lucky enough to secure a ticket, I always enjoy seeing a play performed in London’s Donmar Warehouse. The 250-seat auditorium always creates an atmosphere of surprising, and sometimes uncomfortable intimacy between the audience and the events unfolding on stage, and we are never allowed to feel that sense of distance (real or emotional) that can enter in when plays try to occupy larger spaces.
‘Occupy’ is a very significant word here because the current production, Steve Waters’ Temple takes as its theme the debates and deliberations that shaped the decisions taken by the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral during the Occupy London protest of October 2011. With the Cathedral having been controversially closed to the public on grounds that the camp outside jeopardized visitor safety, Waters’ play covers the anguished process by which the Dean decides to re-open the Cathedral and, simultaneously, to side with the Corporation of the City of London in a legal bid to have the protesters moved from its environs. Advice and criticism are never hard to find for the Dean: the Cathedral’s Canon Chancellor has resigned in protest at the decision, and taken to Twitter to air his disgust; the Bishop of London senses that the issue is not so much one of spiritual rectitude as of the public image of the institution and reminds the Dean of how ‘Rowan’ over in Lambeth Palace is keeping a keen eye on the unfolding crisis. The City of London’s lawyer counsels the full force of the legal process being used against the protesters, but the possibility of violence literally on the Cathedral steps remains too grave a risk for the Chapter to sanction lightly.
What we see on the stage in ninety intense minutes is ostensibly fictional, but it is fiction acutely aware of its factual roots. The conversations may be imagined, but the decisions taken were real, and the subsequent resignation of the actual Dean of St Paul’s in the wake of the closure/re-opening saga makes Simon Russell Beale’s complex portrayal of a man tormented by questions of spiritual and moral probity that have no easy answers an even more impressive feat of acting. On stage for the duration of the play, the Dean is visited by a series of tempters – each of whom is, in some degree ‘right’ but none of whom ultimately offers the single solution that would solve the intractable problem. The opening of the church is probably ‘right’ but does the removal of the camp make the Cathedral complicit in the capitalist system against which the protesters complain? What should the church say in the economic and social crisis to which Occupy represents a response? Protesters and authority figures alike are partial to asking: ‘What would Jesus do?’ in any given situation, but only in the figure of the Dean do we see a man who ponders at length what happens when men and women presume to know the answer to that question.
As a play about faith, values (moral, spiritual, and economic), the role of the Church in society, and the unstable world in which we still live four years on from the events it narrates, Temple is a remarkable piece of theatre. It is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 25th July. Tickets are probably impossible to find, but if you can get one, do so!