A remarkable aspect of “The Winslow Boy” is the way Terence Rattigan tells the story of a celebrated court case through the single setting of an Edwardian drawing room. In “Temple”, which opened at London’s Donmar Warehouse last week, Steve Waters pulls off a similar feat. The off-stage event here is the Occupy movement in London in October 2011, which followed on swiftly from the one in New York. Demonstrators had headed to the Stock Exchange, but the police diverted them towards St Paul’s Cathedral; thousands gathered on the cathedral steps, and hundreds set up tents. In a decision that was fiercely contested by his colleagues and congregation, the dean closed the cathedral for a week for health and safety reasons.
Waters tells the story of the church’s anguish and indecision, which led to the resignation of the dean and the canon chancellor, through the single setting of a room in the Chapter House. This room, in Tim Hatley’s design, is a magnificent one: lengthy wooden table, green leather seats and three tall windows overlooking the cathedral’s world-famous dome. Off-stage we hear bells tolling the quarter hours and the chants and cheers of the protesters.
“Temple” opens with the dean—superbly played by Simon Russell Beale—closing one of these windows. A play about Occupy that excludes the voices of the protesters (“the 99%”, after all) might seem perverse, but when the central characters are clergymen, opposition is scarcely needed—both the dean and his main adversary, the canon chancellor, are extremely good at seeing their own shortcomings. These two, along with the Bishop of London, are fictionalised versions of recognisable figures (none of whom will find watching this an easy experience), and their positions are sharply contrasted.
Stooping, fastidious and slyly witty, Russell Beale is as eloquent when dumbfounded as he is when speaking. His chubby fingers anxiously pat his thatch of white hair, fold themselves benignly on his generous stomach and rub his reddened eyes with increasing force. Paul Higgins plays the youthful canon chancellor with defiant bravado (vain as well as sincere, he tweets his resignation) and Malcolm Sinclair’s Bishop of London is a consummate establishment figure, wearing a Barbour jacket, carrying a copy of the Daily Telegraph and smoothly enunciating well-judged pieties.
Waters telescopes the weeks of action into a couple of hours before a thoroughly modern conjunction of events: the Eucharist and a press conference. The cathedral is to re-open for worship and the dean is hesitating about whether to initiate legal proceedings for eviction of the protesters, which the canon chancellor believes will lead to violence. The point of remaining in a single room is far more than technical deftness. At the centre of Waters’ play lies a fundamental question: is the church part of the everyday world that can be followed on Twitter and dimly heard outside the windows, or is it about something else, something other-worldly?
St Paul’s has been a place of worship since 604AD, so it’s hardly the dean and chapter’s fault that Christopher Wren created a world-renowned building there, or that the world’s financial institutions took up residence in their parish, or that the police shunted the protesters their way. But a protest that set out to shame City bankers turns into a tragic dilemma for the clergy. One of the achievements of Howard Davies’ masterly production (and Hatley’s design, and Mark Henderson’s lighting) is our constant awareness of the tension between “out there” and “in here”.
The impassioned arguments between the three clergymen are reframed by interventions from the three women in the play. The most engaging is Rebecca Humphries’ wonderfully guileless new PA, who ends up mounting a theological defence on behalf of the dean. But there’s intense pressure on the dean from Shereen Martin’s sleekly smart City lawyer, whose wide easy smile masks a chilly objective, and Anna Calder-Marshall’s elderly verger, distraught at what is happening to her beloved cathedral.
Waters’ plays show a consistently witty and lively engagement with topical issues, from think tanks and migrant labour to climate science and free schools. With “Temple” he captures the painful ironies and contradictions, and the acute personal cost, which flowed from the Occupy protest. As the verger says, “I’m finding the whole business of forgiveness extremely challenging.” Here are well-meaning, intelligent people struggling not to take bad decisions. Good modern plays about the church are rare: in 1990 David Hare wrote the excellent “Racing Demon”—25 years on, here’s another.
Temple Donmar Warehouse, London, until July 25th