St Paul’s Cathedral, in all its glory, has stood tall through thick and thin, including The Blitz, but when a group of anti-capitalist protestors set up camp outside it in October 2011, the mighty building was closed off from the public for the first time in history. Supposedly due to health and safety concerns, and at a cost of approximately £22,000 per day, the Dean and Chapter’s decision was widely criticized. To add insult to reputational injury, the church itself had never been the intentional target of the demonstration; the protestors had tried to affect City workers by sitting in the nearby Paternoster Square, but upon being booted out of that privately owned location, took their chance on St. Paul’s, where they stuck.
Steve Waters has penned an exceptional new play imagining what went on behind the closed doors of the St Paul’s Chapter House while this commotion played out. Temple boasts subtlety and panache with Waters presenting the conflicting schools of thought on the matter through the Dean at the centre of the crisis and those surrounding him in his ecclesiastical workplace. The delectable writing gently snipes at every faction involved with admirable impartiality, highlighting the nuances of the tensions between different generations, classes and religious proclivities.
The scene is set the morning after the night before in the Dean’s offices, the remnants of an agitated all-night meeting strewn across the table. His silent entrance is pregnant with worry and world-weariness as he stares out of the grand sash windows, the monumental dome looming down on him and the sound of the protesters permeating the air from below. The cathedral has been closed for two long weeks and, following last night’s discussions, he has decided that is should open again at lunchtime today. As we come to learn, the Dean Chancellor has resigned during these talks due to his opposition to any decisions favouring the removal of the protesters that might lead to force being used against them – force that would consequently have been used in the name of the Church.
Apparent from the off in Simon Russell Beale’s frazzled Dean is the strain of settling the matter without compromising the worshipful purpose of the Church, nor quashing the activists’ democratic right to protest, nor upsetting the powers that be in The City who want these pests gone, nor falling prey to the media, nor bringing the fabulous building itself into disrepute, and so on. This could be rather a dour, even depressing sort of show based on the enormity of the ethical, theological, political and personal quandaries being hashed out, but there is a wonderful sense of lightness to it thanks, not only to the wittily crafted script, but the slick direction by Howard Davies and the actors themselves who have nowhere to hide in the intimate surroundings of The Donmar Warehouse.
When Beale finally turns to face the audience during that opening sequence, there is suddenly the eerie sound of choristers’ treble voices in long-sustained notes that would, in a TV comedy, denote a religious experience of some sort with tongue firmly in cheek. Beale alerts to this noise (and its slapstick connotation) with a beady sideways glance, his entire frame freezing rigid as though bracing for some epiphany, or divine visitation. He then remembers that this is his ringtone, and the sound turns out to be coming from the iPhone in his pocket: not a celestial encounter – just a modern interruption. Beale most certainly indulges this comic element, and many others resulting from his rather pompous and old-fashioned character, whilst still conveying the deep sense of inner turmoil from which he is suffering.
Ultimately, you come to realise that the Dean is not a draconian monster intent on bullying out the protesters, but, committed to an anachronistic institution, is entirely at a loss in this modern world of instant communication and anti-deferential expression. That world is dissected through the various attitudes displayed in the other characters: the condescending Bishop concerned about “appearance management;” the callous corporate lawyer intent on bulldozing her way to resolution; the young PA oblivious of protocol; the liberally-minded Dean Chancellor so desperate to be accepted by the technological generation that he even tweets his resignation. These threats to the traditions the Dean cherishes, and the weight of responsibility on his shoulders in trying to keep everyone (including Him upstairs) happy, paralyze him into indecision – the worst reaction to such a highly-charged crisis.
Throw in a few astute quips about Archbishops past and some unashamed stereotyping and the result is a funny, sharp and thoughtful play. To round things off, Malcolm Sinclair is on top form as the sanctimonious (and slightly slimy) Bishop of London, Paul Higgins provides a youthfully zealous voice of reason, and Anna Calder-Marshall adds poignancy as a long-serving Verger with a genuine love of the building. At times over-egged, Shereen Martin’s brazen lawyer is the one possible step too far, but her ridiculous lingo and flippantly disingenuous demeanour certainly highlight the differences between the old and the new, thus getting to the crux of the matter.
Temple at the Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX, until 25th July 2015. For more information and tickets visit the website.