A crisis of conscience lies at the heart of Steve Waters’s new play Temple (Donmar Warehouse), directed by Howard Davies, which provides a fictionalised account of what happened when the anti-capitalist Occupy Movement set up camp in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The play is set at the end of a fraught fortnight in 2011, during which the cathedral was closed amid safety concern, and deals with the collision between archaic tradition and belligerent modernity. In other words the struggles within the Church itself rather than its altitude towards the protesters, as the movement faces legal action by the City of London.
In a wood-panelled boardroom which offers an impressive view of the dome of St. Paul’s through its sash windows, the struggling Dean has to wrestle with a multitude of practical issues. Can force he used to remove the protesters and will he therefore do along with the City’s eviction plans? What are the Church’s responsibilities to the state and the City – and what about its responsibility to the vulnerable?
The Dean, with the support of a new and improbably outspoken PA, receives visits from a no-nonsense lawyer representing the Corporation of London, as well as his passionate colleague, the Canon Chancellor who has decided to throw in the towel, whilst also having to deal with the needs of the Verger and a monumentally pompous Bishop of London.
This is a drama of words rather than actions and although peppered with some wickedly barbed lines, is at times too static, lacking the energy and insight that David Hare brought to his play Racing Demon, also about the workings of the Church, some years ago. Yet in its favour, the characters are uncaricatured and unsentimental, and the ideas they argue over are ambiguous, funny and fundamental, offering no clear solutions.
What, though, distinguishes this production is a first-rate performance by Simon Russell Beale, who bears a striking resemblance to the actual Dean himself. He provides a sympathetic portrayal of a man ravaged by doubt, yet who can meet adversity with courage, humility and wit. Strong support is provided by Paul Higgins as the fractious, jeans-wearing Canon Chancellor who resigns in protest by Twitter, Malcolm Sinclair as a media-savvy Bishop of London, urging the Dean to wake up to “appearance management” and Anna Calder-Marshall as the austere Verger.
An evening then in which the personal and the political and the real and the fictional are seamlessly intertwined.
Runs until July 25
Box office: 0844 871 7624Last modified: April 7, 2021