Monday, July 6, 2015

Hard Problems: Temple and The Hard Problem

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.

Simon Russell Beale and Paul Higgins (Photo: Johan Persson)
The Virger and the Canon Chancellor, a passionate and high-strung man who finds it difficult to censor himself, are not the only figures whose points of view the play solicits and the Dean considers. The Corporation of the City of London weighs in, in the person of a posh lawyer named Gemma (Shereen Martin) who presses him to confirm St. Paul’s unity with the city on the subject of an injunction against the protesters. She is high-handed and can’t always resist the temptation to be glib, but the actress is careful not to turn her into an easy aristocratic target. That’s also true of the Bishop of London (Malcolm Sinclair), whose main concern is that the Church of England may appear outmoded and self-interested and whose solution is to encourage the Dean to interact personally with the Occupiers. (“Bit late in the day for a charm offensive” is the Canon Chancellor’s ironic response.) Sinclair gives a hilarious performance as this rather grand personage, who, in the Dean’s view, is enviably “without portfolio, not dragging a building around for him, no, he springs up here, there, a royal wedding, a glamorous speaking assignment, utterly at liberty to be endlessly visible . . . when some of us instead must bear the weight of these great churches on our backs.” The Bishop maintains a studied distance from St. Paul’s, asserting the Dean’s position as the man in charge yet making his own opinion felt. (Subtly, he suggests that, in the light of the Occupy embarrassment, the Dean tender his own resignation, adding that of course he, the Bishop, doesn’t have the power to fire him.) The Bishop has become so secularized that when he walks in unannounced and sees the Dean on his knees, asking for divine guidance, he assumes he must be ill.

Finally there’s Lizzie (Rebecca Humphries), the new temporary PA – administrative assistant to the Dean – brought in after the withdrawal of his regular, probably permanently, from nervous exhaustion in the wake of the crisis. Lizzie is young and inexperienced, but she’s smart and sensitive; she learns quickly, and she comes with some knowledge of church practice since her father is a vicar. Her forthrightness (a quality she shares with the Canon Chancellor and the Virger) enables Waters to use her as an improvisational adviser to the Dean, whose vulnerability as well as his appreciation for her virtues permits her more leeway to speak her mind than a newbie might normally. We can see that she’s a plot device, but Waters has made her likable as well as articulate, and he needs an outsider to make the circle of voices complete.

When you read Temple, the density of the language trips you up somewhat, but in Howard Davies’ fine production the nimble ensemble elucidates the dialogue. And Simon Russell Beale gives an impeccable display of British stage technique. The night before I saw Temple, I went to the Royal Shakespeare Company revival of Death of a Salesman, where another celebrated technician, Antony Sher, was playing Willy Loman, and though he labored mightily at the role, his style kept colliding with the text, one of the cornerstones of American Method playwriting. (As Linda Loman, Harriet Walter was right in all the ways Sher was wrong: she seemed to abandon her classical training and pick up an in-the-moment Stanislavskian approach as if she’d been using it throughout her career.) Beale’s performance is stylized – the language he’s speaking is carefully cultivated – but it’s imbued with feeling, so that while you marvel at the range of color in his reluctant admission that he finds the Canon Chancellor “vain, vain, vain. Vain. You are a vain man,” you are simultaneously moved by the character’s sorrow, which Beale conveys with intimacy and precision. Temple is the chronicle of a man of conscience who finds himself embroiled in a situation he lacks the wherewithal to handle. In the course of the play, his response to it deepens and alters; the choice he makes at the end to go along with the injunction against Occupy is, he realizes, “the bad choice [but] the only choice [he] can make, the choice that comes from the person [he has] come to be, not the person others might wish [him] to be.” (You may hear in those words a reverse echo of Thomas Becket’s fear in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.) He has to be the protagonist of the drama, not just because his character develops, but also because the Canon Chancellor’s zeal, by comparison, is superficial. In the last analysis, the Dean’s essential decency and his ability to hear and react to the perspectives of the people around him honors him. The playwright’s and the director’s refusal to present the situation in easy, superficial terms brings them honor too.

Olivia Vinall and Damien Molony in The Hard Problem. (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

The title of Tom Stoppard’s latest play, The Hard Problem, alludes to the problem that fascinates high-level research psychologists: if the brain is just matter like the rest of the body, then how do we account for consciousness? Hilary (Olivia Vinall), the main character, gets a job at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science by getting the attention of its director, Leo (Jonathan Coy), with the argument that a computer can never really replicate a human brain because, even if it can play chess, it isn’t thoughtful: it’s merely doing what it’s been programmed to do, like a toaster. (If you could build a computer that minded losing the game, she continues, that would be an accomplishment.) Leo hires Hilary over the other, clearly more qualitifed candidate for the job, Amal (Parth Thakerar), because he finds Hilary’s thinking about the topic more compelling. But Jerry Krohl (Anthony Calf), who happens by to pick up Leo for a game of tennis, is sufficiently impressed by Amal’s skill at using math to predict futures that he hires him at his hedge fund. In the words of Hilary’s university tutor and sometime lover, Spike (Damien Molony), Jerry is “a squillionaire with a Master’s in biophysics who decided to try hedge-funding” and whose money funds the institute. The division between his hedge fund, which is in the business of “gaming the market to make more money for people with money,” and the Institute points to the more specific problem that obsesses Stoppard’s characters: are human beings motivated more by egotism (self-interest) or by altruism?

Stoppard has constructed the play in binary fashion, with examples on both sides of the egotism-altruism debate. What makes it so interesting is that rather than making the characters embodiments of one or the other of these abstracts, he complicates their behavior – which confirms Hilary’s claim that people aren’t as predictable as computers. When we meet Amal, we want to dislike this smug Cambridge graduate who’s plumped for the Krohl Institute job for superficial reasons, not because he’s passionate about the sort of work that’s done there, and when Jerry offers him a job, he makes the switch easily. His girl friend Bo (Vera Chok), on the other hand, leaves the hedge fund after a year because she doesn’t believe in it (she’s the character I quoted above describing its mission); she becomes Hilary’s research assistant, crunching the numbers for her experiment on egotism and altruism in children. Yet when Amal predicts the financial crisis of 2008, he publicizes his findings beyond the hedge fund out of altruism, infuriating Jerry because the interests of the hedge fund aren’t served by Amal’s generosity. And Bo falsifies the data for Hilary’s experiment in order to give her the results she wants, an ill-advised action (which she admits to Hilary only after the results are published) motivated by a desire to please her because Bo has fallen in love with her.

The play, which has received a proficient production at the National Theatre under Nicholas Hytner’s direction (rounding out his tenure as artistic director), is a brain tickler, and its ideas stay with you. I enjoyed it far more than other recent Stoppards like Rock ‘n’ Roll and the trilogy The Coast of Utopia, though like them it’s more intellectual than dramatic. (The prodigious designer, Bob Crowley, finds a way to make the abstract visual with a mechanized brain that hangs over the set.) Hilary is the spokesperson for the notion that we are guided by a moral compass, even though nurture – i.e., worldly experience – tends to obfuscate it. Her belief in a divine entity unsettles and even embarrasses the hard-boiled scientists around her, especially when she gives a paper at a conference that postulates God as the only reasonable answer to the hard problem. Spike implores her to change the paper’s original title, “Is God the Last Man Standing?,” because it will make her unemployable; “You’ll have to do philosophy,” he jokes. That’s exactly what she winds up doing, though not because of the paper – because of her allegiance, finally, to the principles that underlie it. Typically, Stoppard has worked everything out, with devilish cleverness. Only in one instance does he rely on a plot device. Hilary got pregnant at fifteen and gave up the child, and when she prays to God, it’s partly for forgiveness and partly for protection for her daughter. Stoppard, with his love of coincidences and other narrative cross-currents, can’t resist telling us what became of that child, and the revelation is satisfying only on the level of melodrama.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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