Theatre will sometimes bring barely remembered events into sharp focus. “Temple,” starring Simon Russell Beale, is Steve Waters’ reimagining of events at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, on the 15th October 2011. The Occupy London movement were kettled by police away from the London Stock Exchange and settled instead outside St Pauls Cathedral, stopping all services. The sold out show runs until 25 July at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden: go see it.
This needs precision timing. Donmar release a new batch of £10 tickets (courtesy, with no apparent sense of irony, of Barclays bank) on their website every Monday at 10am. They are great seats in a small theatre. No surprise then that they are gone within five minutes. This is a chance to see one of the very best stage actors currently working.
Simon Russell Beale is on stage the whole time and dominates. The production takes place within a conference room for the management of St. Pauls Cathedral, who have to decide whether to support the young anti-capitalist protesters or the authorities that want to evict them. The play is intellectually stimulating, with numerous philosophical quotes thrown into the dialogue. Directed by the incomparable Howard Davies, the staging puts the focus on the actors and the ensemble do not disappoint, even if they revolve around the towering tragic figure of Russell Beale.
This is not a play for the unengaged or uneducated. Filled with religious and philosophical terminology, the dialogue was at times a challenge to fully comprehend. Though it hardly mattered in sharing Russell Beale’s tortured emotional journey as the Dean of St. Paul’s. He is captivating, conveying his character’s conflicts from a slight nervous twitch of a finger to his hesitant movements. His silences are a marvel, rivalling those of Mark Rylance in the BBC production of Wolf Hall.
The counterpoint to the Dean’s anguished lonely character is Rebecca Humphries’ instantly recognisable university graduate, just starting her job as assistant to the Dean. Wearing skinny jeans, a baggy top and messy half-up, half-down hair style, she injects an element of youthful straightforwardness, presenting more down to earth answers to the thorny problems presented. She is just one of the elements that prevents the play becoming too dry or self-absorbed. Similarly, a sudden outburst of dramatic music turns out to be the ringtone of one of the character’s mobile phone ringtone.
This is a play about modern day London, where everyday we face the struggle between the traditions that have created this amazing city, and the need to address the inequalities and injustices that a new generation should not – cannot – accept. Our inalienable right to protest, whether on social media or the streets, inevitably butts us up against authority. Which is, after all, the point. Simon Russell Beale struggles with both sides of this equation. The Church embodies the establishment. “Temple” is a piece of theatre that isn’t afraid to be human and naturalistic, with no added embellishments, no shocking murders, nor big dance numbers. Instead, it is just the depiction of a man wrestling with a problem, which affects all those around him and about which he cares deeply. In trying to do the best thing for his city and his God, he forces us to care as well.