Racing Demon is the first of Hare’s celebrated trilogy examining the role of three British institutions: while Murmuring Judges took on the judiciary and The Absence of War looked at the Labour Party, Racing Demon tackles arguably the most difficult and emotive subject of all – that of the clergy and the church’s role in modern Britain.
Set in an inner-city suburb in London, Racing Demon tells the story of Rev. Lionel Espy, a disillusioned man who believes that the role of the church should simply be to provide comfort and succor to people in need. His curate, the young and charismatic Tony Ferris, believes in a more aggressively evangelical approach – and it is this clash of cultures that the play expertly explores.
Although it was first performed in 1990, the play hasn’t dated in the slightest. Indeed, the backdrop of a spiritually bereft country in turmoil, battling through a recession in the first year of a Conservative Government, seems eerily prescient. The issues dealt with here – homosexuality in the church, ordination of women priests – are as topical as ever too.
This is no angry polemic though – instead, Hare concentrates on the characters, who are almost all in a state of turmoil. Malcolm Sinclair portrays Lionel quite brilliantly, giving a wonderful performance of a man gripped by disillusion and self-doubt, whose story becomes ever more poignant as the play progresses. Jamie Parker is also superb as Tony in a difficult role – full of energy and charisma on the surface, but battling with demons deep inside, best exemplified by his relationship with his agnostic girlfriend, Frances (the excellent Emma Hamilton). His gradual unmasking as a pious, judgmental and rather unpleasant character is perfectly judged by Parker.
Of the supporting cast, Ian Gelder tugs at the heartstrings as the gay priest, always living in fear that his career could be over with one indiscretion. Matthew Cottle, meanwhile, takes most of the funniest lines as Rev ‘Streaky’ Bacon, stealing the show by swigging two cocktails at once in a scene set at The Savoy. Yet even Cottle’s character is not mere comic relief, delivering what could well be the defining line of the production: “The whole thing’s so simple – infinitely loving. Why do people find it so hard?”
Director Daniel Evans – artistic director of Sheffield Theatres – uses the Crucible’s main stage incredibly well, and although the stage is sparsely designed, the back panel ingeniously acts as stained glass, a rainy inner-city street, and an advertising hoarding respectively.
Hare also employs the device of having each character praying aloud between scenes, allowing for greater insights into what drives them as people. The lighting used here is superb, genuinely making the audience feel like eavesdroppers at church; even the one secular character, Frances, gets to explore her frustrated feelings towards religion.
Racing Demon is a thoughtful and thought-provoking play, brilliantly brought to life by Daniel Evans and his talented cast. The idea of a two and a half hour exploration of the internal politics of the Church of England may not sound particularly gripping, but it is tribute to Hare’s skill that it turns out to be exactly that.
The final production in the David Hare season, The Breath of Life, will play at the Lyceum, Sheffield, from 16th -26th February 2011.