A temple is a place of ultimate worship. Temple is about what we individuals, in this modern world of ours, deem worthy of worship. Like fish in a net, we’re fraught and tangled between worshipping capitalism with all its money and indisputable power, and our freedom and our faith in something bigger than ourselves. Steve Waters hones all of this into one unavoidable and attention-funnelling room belonging to the latter: the office of the Dean of St Paul’s (Simon Russell Beale) on the day of its reopening after a fourteen day closure on health and safety grounds. Occupy London had parked themselves on the doorstep, under the looming city in all its capitalist glory. Occupy occupied the steps of St Paul’s to ask for something seemingly simple – direct democracy – and to ask for the democracy that we live in to respond to the needs of the individual, as opposed to perpetually fuelling the corporate monster. But Temple hasn’t sided with Occupy, nor has it spoken for the city; it has given an unusually sympathetic voice to the Dean.
At the time the Dean was vilified, causing the church to haemorrhage hundreds of thousands of pounds. Far from sharing loaves and fishes with the protesters, he appeared to side with the banks, the lawyers and the money. In Waters’s (albeit fictional) account, the Dean is shown to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. It isn’t quite as simple as what would Jesus do, as Paul Higgins’s green but compassionate canon would have it. Jesus wouldn’t need such ornate a building for a start, furnished with the finest oak and gold leaf. Jesus wouldn’t need money, and in the modern world the church’s place is as a business, like any other. There’s only so far generosity, open doors and compassion can take you under laws and ownership. The Dean finds himself caught between protecting the reputation of the church, protecting that which is right and losing the right to choose.
In Howard Davies’s simplistically intricate production the Dean is left claustrophobic in one small room overlooking an empire – a room that, thanks to the set-up of the Donmar, we are all in. He is constantly surrounded by people who are forcing advice, opinions, rules, regulations and scorn upon him. The absolute beauty of Russell Beale’s performance is his impeccable ability to balance a man’s emotional state: a state that rocks between the suffocation of never getting a thought to himself and utter, despairing loneliness. Simon Russell Beale is heralded, respected to the point of legendary status, imposing upon himself the need to match up to his own status. I’ve been disappointed before, clutching at too high hopes when watching The Hothouse and King Lear. Finally with Temple, I got it. He is quietly nuance-packed, with not a single movement that doesn’t belong to his Dean: not one look, gesture or thought. Russell Beale is simplistically an underplayed genius.
Luckily he is surrounded by some pretty fine talents in support – thank god, or that would have been pretty awkward. A flat white-ordering bishop (Malcolm Sinclair) brings humour and disillusionment to the role. The Dean’s brand new PA (Rebecca Humphries) hurdles her way through the first day at the office, a day that starts with an asthma attack and ends with her becoming the voice of reason of a generation, intelligently and socially applying reason to Occupy’s side of the argument. Not to mention her effortless comic timing that she smashes consistently.
Temple matters because it has social value at all layers; as a piece of entertainment it pretty much has it all too.
Temple is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 25 July. For more information and tickets, see the Donmar Warehouse website.