The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Summer 2015
Steve Waters has written a fictional play inspired by actual events and, with the inestimable aid of a sensitive director and talented cast, made it an emotionally involving and intellectually stimulating study in ideas and values that he convinces us are worthy of our attention and concern.
A brief reminder of recent history: In November 2011, as part of a worldwide series of demonstrations calling for reform of capitalist economies, protesters planned to obstruct the London Stock Exchange but were moved by police to the square before St. Paul's Cathedral, where they remained until evicted in February 2012.
The Cathedral found itself in a no-win situation, any move accused of showing bias to the establishment or the protesters, and no move seeming to display moral cowardice. The Cathedral was closed briefly, and the Dean and some other clergy staff resigned either in protest or admission of failure.
Using entirely invented characterisations, Waters' play imagines what went on within the Cathedral offices during the week the church was closed.
He finds honourable people disagreeing honourably, limited people becoming painfully aware of their limitations, and flawed people trying earnestly to do God's work if they could only be sure what it was.
There are, strikingly, no villains to the play, though there is a hero – the Dean, who Walters imagines to be a devout but unworldly man out of his depth but far from a fool.
Simon Russell Beale, a master at finding unexpected colours in the characters he plays, finds the Dean to be unclear about politics but sharp in reading people. He may be a bit of a ditherer, but he catches any attempt to con, manipulate or patronise him, and shows his disdain for such tactics with perfectly timed pauses before a quiet but potent retort. He doesn't have the answers, but fully understands the questions and their importance.
Indeed, one of the pleasures of the play, and of Howard Davies' direction, is that every one of the characters proves to be more rounded and complex than they first appear.
Paul Higgins' junior clergyman, who resigns in a huff over what he sees as the Cathedral moving against the protesters, is a hothead with the grace to be embarrassed by his own excesses without giving up his convictions.
Anna Calder-Marshall's motherly virger, driven to resign by interpreting the Dean's actions exactly oppositely, is an intensely loyal woman painfully discovering that her loyalty is more to the building than the man.
The Bishop of London played by Malcolm Sinclair is an oily church politician, but no less devout and honourable for that, just as the City of London's lawyer played by Shereen Martin first appears glib and shallow but proves to have a sharp and quick intelligence. Even the frazzled temp PA of Rebecca Humphries, first a comic bumbler, proves herself far from callow or foolish.
There were in real life, and are in the play, no right answers, and one of the discoveries Simon Russell Beale's character must wrestle with is that he must satisfy himself with looking for the least worst.
In fact Walters does not take us to the end of the story, but shows us that there was drama a-plenty in the road toward whatever shape it would eventually take.
The issues at hand – not just what to do with the protesters, but what the building and its history stand for and how much in the world the church should be – really matter to these characters. And because playwright, director and actors make the characters come alive, the issues do too, and matter to us.
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