TEMPLE Donmar, WC1


Above the table cluttered with  last-night’s paper cups, high windows show St Paul’s dome; the distant chanting is not of choristers but demonstrators, and the black-clad Dean looking out in weary despair is invaded by a dishevelled supply PA with her backpack hanging open – late because of a rail replacement bus. Thus within the first minute Howard Davies’ superb production establishes a clash: orderly ecclesiastical tradition meets the angry muddle of modernity.
Steve Waters’ play recreates an insoluble dilemma, imagining the final deliberations in 2011 when St Paul’s reopened after a fortnight’s closure. Would the Dean and Chapter co-operate with the City Corporation in injuncting against – and forcibly evicting – the Occupy protest camp? Ironically, that inchoate anti-capitalist demonstration was never meant to be there: it was the police who kettled it into Cathedral territory, thus providing Occupy with hot TV pictures and the Cathedral with a massive financial loss, a painful question of conscience, and countless sanctimonious remarks about moneylenders-in-the-temple. To make it harder the Canon Chancellor, Giles Fraser, showily resigned at the idea of the Church seeming to condone violence.
The Dean, already under fire for closing a building which stayed open all through the Blitz, had to rule. For ninety theatrically gripping minutes we watch this lonely man beset from without and within, and played by the greatest actor of the day. For Simon Russell Beale gives him intensity, pain, fragility, fire and twinkles of unexpected wit : it’s a flawless, thrilling performance. Waters’ writing weaves absurdity, sincerity, personality and history into a piece sorrowfully perceptive , thought-provoking and necessary. And dares include some very, very good laughs.

For one after another, forces besiege the Dean as he tries to write his reopening sermon. The resigning Canon Chancellor, Paul Higgins all jeans and anorak and enfant-terrible vanity, prates of how “invigorating” and ‘joyous’ the protest camp is. The Dean’s confused horror at his colleague’s self-aggrandizing Twitter habit all through the agonizing day is cruelly demonstrated, their final reconciliation oddly touching. From the other direction comes a snakelike Corporation lawyer (Shereen Martin) urging brisk injuctions against the “scruffy, illiterate, unsightly” plebs.
Nor is our hero helped one whit by the Bishop of London, wickedly given orotund patriarchal life by Malcolm Sinclair. He refers to the occupation as “a gift” and urges some sort of washy PR campaign to please the vaguely distressed unseen figure of “Rowan”. But as the Dean observes with brief waspishness (Russell Beale managing always to convey the conflict of a man who wishes he wasn’t so provoked to sharpness) the Bishop of London is on easy street. “Without portfolio. No dragging a building around for him. No, he springs up here, there, a royal wedding, glamorous speaking assignment, at liberty to be endlessly visible”. Sinclair’s attempt at a reassuring man-hug of the stolid, appalled Dean is a comic moment to treasure. Though not, I suspect, if you are the Rt Revd. Richard Chartres.

Rebecca Humphries is beguilingly natural as Lizzie the PA (never sat her history degree, but did a thesis on “Witchcraft through the lens of Queer Theory”). She is pivotal both in argument and emotion, reappearing at every juncture. And so it goes: faeces and racket and earnest idealism and disorderliness outside, inside the Virger (a stiffly splendid Anna Calder-Marshall) talking of lacquering candelabras. And all the time, that impossibility of a right decision. For as the Dean says, St Paul’s has been there 1400 years and never asked to be the parish-church to Mammon’s towers. But since it is, it must keep the worship going and the roof on, try to be holy, somehow. The ending is graceful and profound: sad, human, gentle, honest.
box office 0844 871 7624 to 25 July
Rating: five    5 Meece Rating
Sponsors: Barclays / C & S Sherling


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