Steve Waters’ new play is a loosely fictionalised account of the crisis within the Church of England in 2011 after Occupy set up camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral.
Decisions have to be reached over the reopening of the building and whether to evict the protestors. This wrangling has already led the canon chancellor to resign – announcing his decision via Twitter – and now the dean is being pressured on all sides, by the press, by his PA, by his verger, by legal representatives of the City.
So much of what the play discusses is truly fascinating: Waters’ play is both a hymn to the beauty and might of Wren’s building as it is an exploration of its history, as a place of worship and propaganda, its shifting symbolic power across the centuries. It unpicks the workings of the Church while also investigating the nature of its legal relationship with the Corporation of London. It is also a play about faith and what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century. And yet, given all this, it is maddeningly static in places. There are times when Howard Davies’ production seems to empty of air, where you want to hold a feather to its lips to check whether it’s still breathing.
It does wake up when Simon Russell Beale’s gentle dean clashes with Paul Higgins’ impassioned canon chancellor. His performance is one of delicacy and grace as a man who feels obliged to do something he finds morally untenable – he moves like a person with a dome on his shoulders. Higgins does fine work too, but Shereen Martin is saddled with a thankless role as an off-the-peg City lawyer – and the protestors are reduced to tinny noise outside the window.
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