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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
TEMPLE
at Donmar Warehouse

OCCUPY ST PAUL'S
By RACHEL HALLIBURTON

  Rebecca Humphries and Simon Russell Beale/ Ph: Johan Persson

The iconic dome of St Paul’s has seemed to evolve seamlessly as a symbol in the modern world. Its distinctive silhouette pops up in films ranging from Lawrence of Arabia to Trainspotting, while its memorial services mark everything from the deaths of major cultural figures (Big Bird once sang there for Jim Henson) to those killed in Afghanistan. Yet there is a degree to which it will always sit on the fault line between the ancient and modern, and no event has shown that more starkly than the supposed clash between Occupy London and the cathedral authorities. Steve Waters’ new play, Temple – set in a replica of St Paul’s Chapter House – puts the microscope on how the Dean, the Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser and the Bishop of London dealt with the fallout from the crisis.
 
It may seem perverse to write "supposed clash" – of course there was a very public clash – yet as Waters’ subtle script reminds us, the protesters initially didn’t intend to camp outside St Paul’s. The target of their ire was the cathedral’s neighbour, London’s Stock Exchange, but a court injunction prevented them from camping outside, so they moved to St Paul’s Churchyard. As a result, the premise of the debate was skewed by the premises. With an irony that a latter-day Evelyn Waugh might have appreciated, a false opposition was quickly set up in the media between an apparently aloof cathedral, in cahoots with the wealthy and entitled, and the protesters championing the poor. The Dean’s decision first to close the doors of the cathedral and then take legal action to remove the protesters seemed to confirm this bias. Giles Fraser’s resignation came across as a cry from the heart from a man who recognised where the true Christian sentiment lay.
 
Temple takes it upon itself to address this polarised depiction of the crisis, portraying events on the day of the Canon Chancellor’s resignation. Simon Russell Beale – himself formerly a chorister at the cathedral – plays the beleaguered Dean, Graeme Knowles, with the characteristic combination of waspish intellectual wit and profound humanity that marks his most resonant performances. The script does not exonerate Knowles (who, like Fraser, is not explicitly named) – far from it – yet Russell Beale tellingly evokes the plight of a man trapped in impossible circumstances. We see that Knowles, a popular Dean, has tried to do what is responsible and reasonable and has fatally misjudged his hand. As the individual in charge of a public totem, he must deal with the appearance of reality as much as reality itself, but cannot comprehend how to do so in a world defined by tweets and iPhone images.
 
There are many delightful details in Howard Davies’ production. The mobile-phone ringtones for the different characters are a running joke, as are the types of coffee they drink. "I’ll have a flat white," says the Bishop of London. In the Chapter House, the Dean must deal with a series of visitations. These include a female virger who, somewhat inauthentically, raves about the merits of previous deans (no dean is a hero to his virger!), a wise fool in the form of a scatty PA, the Bishop and Paul Higgins’ Canon Chancellor. The latter, Giles Fraser, emerged as a hero in the media, but here, like Knowles, his image is more nuanced. "You are a vain man," Russell-Beale intones, though Fraser’s canny intellect is in no doubt, and their heartfelt hug later is equally telling. 
 
At this point I should declare an interest – my late father was a canon at St Paul’s from 1990 to 2003. It was very much part of cathedral life to care for the homeless and offer comfort to those in difficulty, so it was strange to see the media portraying a St Paul’s that had no time for the disadvantaged. Disappointingly, Temple does not address this particular issue, though perhaps that is understandable. For all its flaws, the simplified portrayal of the cathedral still managed to raise profound questions about the church that without doubt played a part in the eventual appointment of the politically astute, financially savvy Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury.
 
Where the play does excel is in revealing the complexity of the factors affecting those who were caught up in a rhetorical maelstrom, and whose lives were changed both for better and worse. It shows that it is not just God who moves in mysterious ways in this strange, conflicted world.

 


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