Temple is a debate play about the role of the church in the world, and specifically about the role of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and specifically in the City of London, and even more specifically during the Occupy protest that made St Paul’s their camp in 2011. Two prominent clergymen resigned over the Cathedral’s handling of the protest, as the church found itself caught between its two very different flocks, the protestors whose methods it did not understand and the City which it knew all too well. Steve Waters’ play shows us both of these men and focuses the debate down to a single moment after the Canon Chancellor (Paul Higgins) has resigned because he wants the church to engage positively with the protestors, and before the Dean (Simon Russell Beale) reopens the Cathedral to celebrate the Eucharist.
In the shadow of Christopher Wren’s architecture, each character has their moment to opine a discreet stance on the protest happening just outside the window (although notably no character is directly engaged with the markets or Occupy), but the focus is unwaveringly on the person of the Dean, with Russell Beale onstage throughout, working out what he will say at the homily which he has decided he must deliver, explaining the church’s position. He just needs to work out exactly what that is, marrying his innate respect for history and authority with the frustration with the financial sector he shares with the “great unwashed” outside.
There is an unwritten rule (well, I think Libby Purves wrote about it) about critics not spoiling anything that happens after the interval, but then again, Temple doesn’t have one. About halfway through Temple we know exactly what should happen. There’s a rousing speech to come, and a soapbox from which it can be made. The heart should win over the head. We’ve been fed enough information that we could almost deliver the speech ourselves, but… it doesn’t quite go like that. In real life the Dean will go on to resign, not on principle, but because popular opinion was more progressive than he. And so we see the discursive form – which often leads to over optimistic synthesis and hope – is mediated by the tragic form: a man realising that he is bound by the character he has become, shaped by a career in the church to make a choice which he acknowledges is a bad one. It’s a fairly unfamiliar arc created from very familiar pieces.
Director Howard Davies brings out strong performances from a talented cast, with laughs well-earned by Rebecca Humphries and Shereen Martin, but he can’t quite balance the vying form and prevent the tragic elements of the text getting a little out of hand. By the final act of the short play Malcolm Sinclair and Anna Calder-Marshall return to do little more than repeat earlier scenes, and Waters play seems trapped – maybe by an oak-panelled room and the institutions of the church, but more likely by a too-rigorous historical approach, without room for dramatic restructuring.
While Russell Beale’s work is engaging and humorous there are ultimately only so many tears I can stomach from a character who has dined fat on the finance sector’s tab, and is now sad that he has to make a difficult decision. It is especially galling to be asked, as I think Waters play does, intentionally or otherwise, to sympathise with the Dean’s position, having shown us so painstakingly an alternative course of action.