Simon Russell Beale’s deeply felt performance is one of his very best

Occupy London, the anti-capitalist movement, rallying against economic inequality, social injustice and corporate greed, was stopped by the police from occupying the London Stock Exchange in 2011. The demonstrators then proceeded to set up camp in St Paul’s churchyard. But in whose jurisdiction is the courtyard? The cathedral’s or the City’s?

The dean closed the cathedral (for health and safety reasons) for an unprecedented two weeks. The cathedral, a celebrated symbol of Britain, was shut for only four nights at the height of the Blitz. One of the most famous photographic images is of St Paul’s rising out the smoke of the raging fires, proud, defiant and still undefeated after 47 consecutive nights of bombing by the Luftwaffe.

Steve Waters’s Temple, at the Donmar Warehouse, is an imagined version of real events, set on the day the cathedral is about to reopen, October 28, 2011. The occupation continued until February 28, costing London over a million pounds in monitoring and legal fees.

Who will the Dean support? He is under huge pressure to agree to the eviction; but, surely, he should be siding with the demonstrators? The worldly Bishop of London is worried that the indecision, and the continuing bad publicity, merely propagate the idea that the city has lost its nerve, if not marbles. The unworldly Dean knows he has to speak out, one way or the other; but full of doubt, he vacillates. What would Jesus have done? You have only to read the Gospels and look at Giotto and El Greco to know.

Waters’s 90-minute play is literate. It has a dry wit and the balanced debate is extremely well acted in a handsome and stimulating production by Howard Davies. The anguished and beleaguered Dean, a thoroughly decent man, is the finest clerical role for the stage since David Hare’s Racing Demons. Simon Russell Beale’s sympathetic and deeply felt performance is one of his very best.

Paul Higgins gives a vehement account of the Canon Chancellor, a vain young man who sides with the protesters and tweets his resignation. Malcolm Sinclair is amusing as the supercilious and quietly threatening Bishop, who is irritated to discover the Dean praying to God, when he should be dealing with the crisis.

Rebecca Humphries is a keen young PA; Anna Calder Marshall is a dour old verger and Shereen Martin is a city lawyer in high heels, used to getting her way, smart, trenchant and aggressively efficient.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (12/6/15).

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