james debate
james debate

Tuesday 14 July 2015

Directed by Howard Davies
Written by Steve Waters
Starring Sir Simon Russell Beale, Anna Calder-Marshall, Paul Higgins
Theatre Donmar Warehouse

donmar theatre london temple occupy protest st paul

The Donmar Warehouse seems to be on real political kick as of late, with the NSA/Snowden piece Privacy last year, the election day telecast The Vote, and now Temple.

This time the attention is turned towards the Occupy protests of 2011 and 2012, anti-capitalist protests directed broadly at the financial industry and London Stock Exchange, before being kettled by the police onto the non-jurisdictional property of St. Paul's Cathedral. Temple follows the Dean of St. Pauls as he attempts to navigate the tricky legal and moral waters of how to handle these protesters on the Church's door.

There is no doubt that Temple was solidly enjoyable play. It's classic London theatre, an intellectual drama laced generously with helpings of humour. For the most part the writing is sharp and on point, with plenty of wit to cut the treacle and some fine performances.

Chief among the performers of course is Sir Simon Russell Beale, one of the finest stage actors alive today. He is typically on excellent form with a masterclass in how to take an initially unlikable character and crumble him into something more tragic and sympathetic. The other performances are impressive in their own right; Malcolm Sinclair briefly steals the scene as the Bishop of London, while Paul Higgins' Canon chancellor provides an able modern foil to Beale's old fashioned Dean.

But the main scrutiny on a play such as this which focuses on such recent history will always be on its portrayal of historical events. No real people are named here, but it's easy for anyone familiar with current events to tell who the real life counterparts are supposed to be. It is therefore somewhat grating at the few moments of script weakness where the author's obvious ideological biases show through. There are a few too many speeches on the merits and righteousness of the Occupy ideology (if they can even be said to have had a single clear one) and the author's clear belief that the Church should have been siding with the protesters from the get go.

Indeed there is a reasonable argument that can be (and is repeatedly) made that the Church's teachings are more in line with opening up to the protesters than siding with the authorities, but it is nevertheless far too easy to recoil in the face of someone who obviously wants to try and propagandise the narrative of current events as he wishes, regardless of accuracy or merit.

Then there is the other main problem with this production. The story really isn't a particularly important or noteworthy one. The script tries to frame the events of this day as holding the balance of the fate of the Church, or as some confrontation between brutal autocracy evicting peaceful protesters who simply wish to exercise their human rights. The trouble is this was far less dramatic in real life, the Church is doing just fine now and they never even had to evict the protesters, they just left. What drama there is is certainly effectively conveyed, but a lot of people will likely spend the first half of the play just trying to figure out what is the big dilemma.

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