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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
TEMPLE
at Donmar Warehouse

THE EARTHLY REALM
By SAM MARLOWE

  Simon Russell Beale and Paul Higgins/ Ph: Johan Persson

Faith, law, morality and money: Steve Waters’ highly intelligent new play sets some mighty forces against one another and examines the fallout with a clear-eyed intensity. Deftly directed by Howard Davies, It’s a shrewd meditation on the role of the church in modern British society – a question thrown into sharp relief by the three-month encampment of the Occupy movement on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. The closure of the church means it’s at once unavailable to worshippers and to tourists – and the City of London is keen to use legal muscle to have the anti-capitalist protestors evicted. But in which direction should Christian sympathies point?

Simon Russell Beale is the Dean, grappling with a host of ethical dilemmas on the morning of 28 October, 2011, with the cathedral about to reopen after a week-long closure. This man of God is prickly, witty, impatient – biting back sharp words as he is ministered to by a bright but inexperienced and under-briefed intern (Rebecca Humphries). A slick city lawyer (Shereen Martin) arrives with a box of artisan cupcakes, eager to encourage the chapter to swallow her scheme for eviction along with the sponge and sweet frosting. The young Canon Chancellor (Paul Higgins) is firmly on the side of the protestors, and equates the financial fat cats of the Square Mile as the moneylenders expelled by Christ from the temple. His resignation – announced on Twitter – publicly exposes division in the church hierarchy. The Verger (Anna Calder-Marshall) is horrified that cathedral upkeep hasn’t been maintained – “We haven’t lacquered the chandelier” – and the smooth, modernist Bishop of London (Malcolm Sinclair) is all for some sort of pragmatic, face-saving compromise.

In a world where clerics sip “flat whites” and disseminate ideas via social media, the ritual and contemplativeness of religion struggle for space and air, and that tension is clearly conveyed in Russell Beale’s performance as the Dean, devoted to the spiritual, non-temporal realm, but forced to exist and work in the earthly one. As he falls to his knees to pray for guidance or struggles with his sermon, the hymn that floats in from the secular street outside is a repeated line from Bob Marley, “Everything’s gonna be all right” – an assurance that may ultimately prove as groundlessly optimistic for the protestors optimistically singing it as it is irksomely simplistic to the Dean. Russell Beale is by turns anguished, poignant and exasperated, and Tim Hatley’s design, with its towering windows and grand perspective of imposing architecture beyond workaday office space, brilliantly suggests the glorious, the monolithic and the mundane. As a whole, both play and production are both sensitive and brilliantly incisive.

 


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