When Simon Russell Beale played Timon of Athens at the National three years ago, he switched from riches to rags by joining the tented village of Occupy protestors on his doorstep.
That extraordinary drama, enacted on the forecourt of St Paul’s Cathedral at the end of 2011, is more directly invoked in Steve Waters’s supple, subtle new play. And Russell Beale, in one of his most compelling and rationally transparent performances, is the dean of the chapter.
The setting designed by Tim Hatley is in fact the Chapter House, a large panelled room with a view of the cathedral dome through the sashed windows, the murmur of the crowd rising from below. The dean – not referred to by name – is in a torment of indecision and self-examination having shut the cathedral doors against the rabble.
As a result, the canon chancellor (Paul Higgins) has tended his resignation – as indeed Giles Fraser did in real life – the bishop of London (Malcolm Sinclair) is calling by to check on the order of service and there’s a flurry of bureaucratic input from a flustered PA (Rebecca Humphries) and a sheeny city lawyer (Shereen Martin).
The canon chancellor has resigned because he believes the chapter is set on a course of action that could mean violence in the name of the Church, though, in the event, an eviction was peacefully (as well as forcefully) completed in February 2012. The real point at issue was a symbolic one: if Jesus himself drove the traders from the temple, how does a temple such as St Paul’s justify acting as an aggrieved landowner and enemy of protest?
None of the arguments erupt in oratory or anger, really, in Howard Davies’s beautifully modulated and controlled production, and each character finds what politicians these days call wriggle room in defining their positions. The dean’s unease extends to his difficulty with social media, the precise meaning of the liturgy, the legal and publicity procedures of the situation that is still developing.
Waters is very good at marshalling thoughts and feelings in dramatic form, as he memorably proved in his pair of climate change plays, The Contingency Plan, at the Bush. There’s a similar ripple of intelligence across the surface of this play, too, without avoiding the irony of a Christian body appearing to disown its own duty of opposition to corrupt practices in the banks and on the stock exchange.
Russell Beale’s dean acknowledges the validity of the protest and bemoans his bad luck in providing the forum. It was never the choice of the cathedral, he says, to be the parish church of high finance, and this church has stood on this spot long before any banks opened for business.
The idea that the show must go on, whatever happens, is expressed in the bustling figure of Anna Calder-Marshall’s verger, preparing vestments for the ritual of the Eucharist, and there’s a surprise incursion of two boy choristers whose voices briefly supersede all the whys and wherefores of religion and the embattled positions of its representatives.
Temple runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 25 July 2015