|Simon Russell Beale and Shereen Martin in Temple, at London's Donmar Warehouse. (Photo: Johan Persson)|
American political plays tend to simplify the issues to the level of a high-school social studies class and rarely bother to dramatize them. (There are exceptions, of course, like Clybourne Park and Smart People, both satirical takes on race.) Steve Waters’ Temple, at London’s Donmar Warehouse, is the kind of political drama we go to the Brits for: a work of penetrating intelligence, sound dramatic structure and verbal wit that engages equally with ideas and characters. Temple is set in the Chapter House of St. Paul’s Cathedral during the 2011 Occupy protests, on the morning after the Chapter has voted – after a late, contentious meeting – to reopen the cathedral for the noon Eucharist service. The Dean (Simon Russell Beale) elected to close it after the protesters were routed from the London Stock Exchange into the courtyard of St. Paul’s two weeks earlier and decided to pitch their tents there. He was offended by their presence but felt there was no alternative but to close the doors, a decision he now regrets. His choice to reopen has provoked his younger, left-leaning Canon Chancellor (Paul Higgins) to resign. He sees Occupy as an invigorating populist impulse akin to that of the early Christians and anticipates violence by the police against the protesters (as there has been in other cities) once the City of London has taken out an injunction against them, as it now seems inevitable they will. Moreover, he’s skeptical about the Chapter’s motives; after all, St. Paul’s, with an obviously expensive upkeep, is losing thousands of dollars in revenues every day it remains shut. (Anyone who’s visited the cathedral knows admission isn’t cheap.) The Dean receives a second resignation from his Virger (Anna Calder-Marshall), a woman in her sixties who’s been at her job through the tenure of two previous deans and whose devotion to St. Paul’s – she believes that Sir Christopher Wren shares with only Winston Churchill the distinction of being the greatest of all Englishmen – is a matter of family tradition: her father was in the Night Watch that protected it during the Blitz. Occupy has unseated her; St. Paul’s, she feels, has become a place she no longer recognizes.