In October 2011, anti-capitalist protesters set up camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral. Unsurprisingly the church authorities were deeply perplexed about how to deal with them. Soon after the protesters arrived, the Dean of St Paul’s announced that the cathedral would close until further notice, asking the protesters to leave the building’s vicinity so that the cathedral could reopen. A few days later, Dr Giles Fraser resigned as Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s over the way the church was dealing with the protestors. The Corporation of the City of London then took legal action against the camp (without support from the church authorities), and in January 2012 they were granted an injunction against continuation of the protest. The camp was eventually broken up on 1 March 2012.
There is plenty in this story on which to base a powerful play. Playwright Steve Waters’ Temple is a brilliantly simple yet compelling telling of the story, currently being performed in a packed-to-the-rafters 90 minute session at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden. (Waters is the husband of Fitz Fellow Hero Chalmers). The play creates tension, atmosphere and good characterisation within the confines of a single scene and a small handful of actors, two of whom, perhaps extravagantly, were young trebles supposedly from the cathedral choir.
The central character is the reflective, indecisive, insecure, other-worldly but thoroughly decent Dean of St Paul’s and thus head of the governing ‘Chapter’, played brilliantly by Simon Russell Beale. (There are references to other leading and indecisive Anglican churchmen, who play a role both on and off stage). The play follows the Dean as he is buffeted by contrary leanings from his new PA, a self-identified “chav”, and the only voice of common sense in this recreated world; from his bishop, from the City’s lawyer and from two members of his Chapter, who both sort-of resign (reserving the right to continue destabilising the Dean’s precarious foundations) during the course of the play. In this high-profile chaos, the poor struggling Dean is left alone to discern the will of his God. The Dean majors on the cathedral as temple, a place where worship has to continue, as against the urgings of the younger self-aware and media-aware Canon Chancellor, who wants the church to engage with those who, however improbably, are campaigning on behalf of the oppressed and unfortunate.
See it if you can. It will make you think. For the Master of a Cambridge College, there were some uncomfortable parallels between the Chapter of St Paul’s and a College Governing Body…
It can be difficult negotiating unexpected and conflicting positions. This is a delightful illustration of the personal difficulties involved in decision-making.