Drama has its sweet spots. “Temple” is one of those plays that takes us into exactly the right room at exactly the right moment. With Occupy London camped outside a closed St. Paul’s Cathedral, its Dean must choose whether to side with or against the protesters. Caught between the devil and the diocese — a bind that actor Simon Russell-Beale plays beautifully — his predicament gets to the very heart of Occupy’s cause. As institutions close ranks, they betray both the people and the principles they’re meant to serve. That makes Steve Waters’ play a sad indictment of our entire society, even if it finds resolution too easily.
Waters is writing around real events. Graeme Knowles was the Dean who closed the cathedral on health and safety grounds, then re-opened it, joining the City of London Corporation in taking legal action against Occupy. His Canon Chancellor, Giles Fraser, made the news with a very public resignation over the issue. Neither is named here, but their ideological tussle is at the heart of the play: Paul Higgins is the junior minister, in jeans and a jumper, urging colleagues to join those outside as Jesus surely would have done; Russell Beale is the man prevented from taking the course he knows right, on account of his position.
The Church, Waters argues, has lost sight of its purpose. Closed, St. Paul’s is hemorrhaging £22,000 ($33,500) a day. The place of worship has become a place of work, with 250 employees on its books and its congregation replaced by tourists. The title of Waters’ play alludes to the temple of Matthew 21, stuffed with moneylenders and merchants. St. Pauls, smack bang in the privately-owned City of London, is surrounded by big banks and big business. The Dean dines with them regularly.
He has the morning to make his decision. In a wood-panelled room, the sort that houses Britain’s establishment, he tries to gather his thoughts — forever interrupted by his new PA, scattered, straight-talking Lizzie (Rebecca Humphries), who’s having one hell of a first day, as well as the modish Bishop of London (Malcolm Sinclair) and the City Corporation’s lawyer (Shereen Martin), who arrives with baked goods and a detailed understanding of the 1980 Highways Act.
St. Paul’s itself dates back to 604 A.D., and it looms large outside the windows of Tim Hatley’s design. Each pane of glass is engraved with a miniature crest signifying private ownership. The hubbub of protest, Bob Marley’s mantra sung like a dirge, drifts in through the windows — until the Dean shuts them closed, safe in his ivory tower.
Russell Beale plays a dilemma like a dream. In “Temple” he veers from panicky paralysis to controlled exasperation — keeping every emotion just about in check, as befits a man of his character’s position. You can almost taste the bile at the back of the throat of a man betraying his conscience, sick to his stomach. In private, he buckles, praying not for forgiveness but that he might be forgotten. He is, above all else, a meek man, properly dressed with no haircut to speak of; a good man acting as the face of a flawed institution.
Waters diagnoses several contemporary ills, the rush of modern life and the anomie of cities. Russell Beale’s Dean is determined to deliver a homily, to speak in a form of genuine human communication at odds with all the texting and tweeting going on around him. Yet Waters suggests that the church is incapable of doing so effectively. Both the Dean and Sinclair’s burring Bishop talk with convoluted propriety. Only the Canon Chancellor speaks in plain English.
There’s a hint that the Church and its hefty stone walls is a retreat of sorts. Much of the humor in Howard Davies’s refined production comes from the juxtaposition of godly men and everyday banalities, of timeworn traditions and newfangled tech. Clergymen clutch cupcakes. Bishops have Blackberries. Russell Beale wears the blank expression of a man out of step with his time, no more capable of understanding the banking system than the complaints against it.
However, given the care to set up that bind, it’s a shame Waters ends with all the answers. Winning as Humphries’s performance is, Lizzie is little more than a cipher, ready to deliver The Solution To Our Society with a simple, pragmatic and, above all, human speech calling for a caring capitalism. It’s pat and glib — well beneath a play that recognizes the complex, uncontrollable forces beneath contemporary society. It makes that dramatic sweet spot sickly.