In October 2011, a group known as Occupy London camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral in protest against capitalism. Sparking outcry, the Dean of St. Paul’s announced the decision to close the cathedral for four days, the first time since the Blitz – thrusting the Church, rather than the City, into an uncomfortable spotlight. Dramatising the church’s dilemma between whether to support the peaceful protestors or have them forcibly evicted, this new play by Steve Waters, Temple, imagines how events unravelled behind the closed doors of St. Paul’s, and explores the challenges facing the church in the 21st century.
The play opens on the morning of October 28th, the day that the cathedral is set to re-open. The dilemma, which has reached a crunch point, is embodied by the central character of the dean (Simon Russell Beale), who is unsure how to proceed. The canon chancellor (Paul Higgins) has already resigned in sympathy to the protestors; the bishop (Malcolm Sinclair) still urges for reconciliation with them; the indifferent verger (Anna Calder Marshall) is merely concerned that the building isn’t ready to be up and running again. Slowly ceding to pressure from the City of London to have the protest cleared, however, we follow the dean’s journey from internal anguish to a final enlightenment.
This very precise historical event might not seem a natural subject for the theatre, but Waters manages to carve it into an interesting drama. The play does not attempt to be didactic; it simply probes the world of the church with an intellectual and philosophical curiosity. It investigates the relationship between the church and the corporate, how Christians should act and behave in the 21st century. It reminds us of the shifting symbolic power of St. Paul’s across the centuries – the dean reminds us that the church has been there for 1400 years ‘before capitalism itself’ – and the changing forces that affect religion.
Of course, it’s all very interesting if you’re passionate about the matters of the church – but if you’re not, all that’s objectively left to admire is Simon Russell Beale’s fine performance as the dean. His portrayal of the real-life figure who found himself demonised by the public for the closure of the cathedral is ultimately a sympathetic one. Initially hard-edged and defiant, he ends the play teary-eyed and pensive: realising himself in an irrational situation with no rational way out, he grows into a graceful tragic hero, announcing his inevitable resignation with a sense of spiritual illumination.
Not all of the supporting cast strike the same note of believability. Shereen Martin oozes caricature in her slick, ruthless manoeuvres as the City lawyer trying to win over the dean’s support. Rebecca Humphries’ role as the dean’s PA also proves dubious light relief: a scatterbrain on her first day at work, she suddenly gains favour with the dean as an authoritative confidant on all matters ecclesiastical. However, Malcolm Sinclair’s media-savvy bishop and Anna Calder-Marshall’s stern virger work well in their more minor roles.
The production is classy, Simon Russell Beale is on top form, but while the writing is undoubtedly intelligent, the play’s appeal is a little too niche in places. You might leave the Donmar Warehouse enriched by the historical and religious matters at hand, but the drama, though well-packaged, is at worst ambivalent – somehow it all fails to excite.