Donmar Warehouse | ★★★★★
Temple, Simon Russell Beale’s new Protestants vs protesters play about the decision to evict the Occupy squatters from St Paul’s is nuanced and satisfying theatre for the Netflix generation.
At its peak, in October and November of 2011, the anti-capitalist protest camp surrounding St Paul’s dominated the news, leading to lively public discussion. But the protesters were incapable of articulating a simple, compelling narrative, and attention inevitably drifted. In this regard, Steve Waters has succeeded where they failed, building a funny, thoughtful, affecting, tightly focused, and thinly fictionalised drama about the Occupy protest, as viewed from the perspective of the staff of St Paul’s, who – swept up in chaos – struggled to maintain the great cathedral and do the right thing.
It’s almost expected that reviews will heap praise on Simon Russell Beale, and this will be no exception. His Dean represents an archetype of a certain kind of quietly self-effacing clergyman, but he lends the role enough depth and pathos to elevate the entire play, turning Paternoster Square into his personal Garden of Gethsemane. The other characters are archetypes too; the Blairite blogging Bishop, the dashing Guardianista Canon Chancellor, the conservative Verger, and the comically monstrous City lawyer. But all of them, in the context of the play, transcend characterisations that might otherwise have come across as glib. Aside from the Dean, the most fully realised character is his PA, who could have easily numbered among the protesters. The whole thing has the feel of prestige television, and you could happily binge-watch a season.
It’s welcome to see a work that questions the ongoing relevance of the Church without reference to child abuse, and although the arguments are rooted in tradition, theology, and ethics, it’s practical and legal considerations that come to dominate, raising the question of whether martyrdom is still possible in a culture of health and safety. Temple is fatalistic, hinting at the possibility for change but resigned to the triumph of the establishment, in which the Church plays a decorative, but ever less important role.