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Salisbury’s stones cry out

26 October 2012

William Golding's novel The Spire, about the building of Salisbury Cathedral, has been adapted for the stage. Oenone Williams uncovers the story


Inspired: above: Salisbury Cathedral by night

Inspired: above: Salisbury Cathedral by night

IN 1946, Bishop Wordsworth's school in Salisbury put on a play by Dorothy L. Sayers, The Zeal of Thy House, about the part-rebuilding of Canterbury Cathedral after a fire in 1174. In the audience was an English master, whose baggy trousers, ragged beard, and greenish, moth-eaten gown had earned him the nickname "Scruff".

This was William Golding, still eight years away from publication of the book that would make him famous. He was not long back from the war, where, involved in the sinking of a German battleship and the D-Day landings, he had learned that "man produces evil as a bee produces honey."

Lord of the Flies, Golding's answer to any lingering post-war sentiment about the innate goodness of man, was widely thought to have been based on his pupils. But, at his death in 1993, many remembered him as inspiring rather than gloomy - passionately defending his deeply felt Christianity in their philosophy lessons. But he could be negligent, too - often setting them to work in silence while he scribbled away at his novels behind his desk.

It is possible that Sayers's play, dealing, as it does, with clerical pride and the nature of creativity, contributed to the genesis of his fifth novel, The Spire. But his immediate inspiration stood just outside the window of the classroom where the boys read silently: Salisbury Cathedral, perhaps the most beautiful example of the Early English Gothic style, and its extraordinary 123-metre (404ft) spire - the tallest in the country, and a stunning testament to medieval architectural virtuosity.

"These cathedrals were the first great buildings in Europe to be put up by paid workmen, not slaves or indentured labour," the writer and director Roger Spottiswoode says. He has adapted The Spire for a new production at Salisbury Playhouse, which opens next Thursday, after trying for years to get a film version off the ground ("often with nearly all the money, but never quite all the money: stories about faith, passion, and ideas are hard to make in Hollywood").

He is amazed by the vision and length of perspective shown by the cathedral's builders. "Medieval cathedral masons were free craftsmen, paid to build something that they would never see finished," he says. "I wanted to know what kind of person could produce something so beautiful, and on such an imaginative scale - something that connects so strongly with us now."

SALISBURY Cathedral was built in record time, between 1220 and 1258, its spire added a century later. Unlike the spires of Malmesbury Abbey, or Beauvais, Salisbury's did not fall down, but, as the head stonemason at Salisbury Cathedral, Chris Samson, points out, this was usually due as much to luck as judgement. "Builders then didn't have computer programmes to calculate loads and forces, or work out wind speeds or transmission of weights: they built by trial and error, never sure what might happen.'"

Medieval masons were feared and respected as technical wizards. They were the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of their day, and guarded their secrets jealously. Highly skilled and highly paid, they still, clearly, needed faith. "Great things happen when people make leaps of faith, say they can do the impossible," Spottiswoode says. "And sometimes those great things are done by people who don't care what they are doing to others."

The central character of The Spire, Dean Jocelin, is such a man. Believing that he has been chosen by God to oversee the placing of a spire on the cathedral, he dismisses all opposition, even when Roger Mason, the master builder, tells him that the foundations will not support the extra weight. Blind to reason, and fixed in his obsession that he is the instrument of God's will, he insists that Mason build ever higher, convinced that faith will make possible what others are calling "Jocelin's Folly".

"The folly isn't mine. It's God's folly. Even in the old days, He never asked men to do what was reasonable. Men can do that for themselves . . . they can buy and sell, heal and govern. But then, out of some deep place, comes the command to do what makes no sense at all - to build a ship on dry land; to sit among the dunghills; to marry a whore; to set their son on the altar of sacrifice. Then, if men have faith, a new thing comes."

UNABLE to pray, unwilling to confess, heedless of the deserted, damaged cathedral, but driven on by his hallucinatory "angel", Jocelin traps Mason into carrying on when he wants to stop, while observing - and being tormented by - Mason's adultery with a young woman, Goody Pangall, whose glimpsed red hair burns like hellfire in Jocelin's dreams.

The result is tragedy: the cathedral stones begin to "sing" and bend under the strain, the army of workers turns to violence, and Pangall, Mason, and his wife, Rachel, are, in various ways, destroyed. By the end, the spire still stands - just - and Jocelin's delusions about himself and his vocation have been stripped away.

"The Spire is an internal monologue from a fracturing personality; but its themes are universal and contemporary," Spottiswoode says. Contemporary? "Yes: think of Tony Blair, and how he forced the UK into Iraq. That happened because of one man's force and vision. I am glad to have adapted it for the stage. The advantage of theatre is that you can focus on the words. . . While the book is complicated and hard to read, a play enables it to be revealed in a simpler way - be more compelling."

There is a difficulty, however. The novel is an extended allegory about the growth of consciousness, the battle of reason and will - especially carnal will. And, like Lord of the Flies, it is about the fallout from people's sinfulness. As an allegory, it operates through symbols, such as Pangall's red hair: sprouting mistletoe; the phallic spire. These may enrich a novel, but no one wants to spend two hours in the theatre working out what everything or everybody represents. So how did Spottiswoode set about making a cast of real people out of Golding's symbols?

"JOCELIN is a wonderful character" Spottiswoode says. "I didn't have to do anything with him, except make him easier to meet. But I hope I have made the other characters more complete, more fleshed in."

The play's director, Gareth Machin, agrees. "The women are sketchy because they are metaphors. And everything in the novel is seen from Jocelin's perspective; so we have had to add some things to clarify. Jocelin is still the key character, the engine of the drama, but we learn more about other people, especially the women."

In an interview for the Bishop Wordsworth's School magazine in 1980, Golding said: "I wasn't thinking in Dickensian terms when I wrote my novels. . . The shape of them was dictated more by a theatrical shape, building up to a climax, and then a sudden fall at the end rather than the shape of a novel."

Despite its author's eagerness to teach a moral lesson, The Spire is certainly dramatic. Not only does its protagonist go through the classic Aristotelian sequence of fatal flaw, suffering, and revelation, but it has an intense, almost Chekhovian spareness of action; its four main characters move and speak entirely within the confines of the cathedral and its immediate surroundings.

‑  Perhaps the surprise is not that The Spire has been dramatised, but that it has not been done before.

THERE is one big thing, however, that might give any director of a stage production pause. How do you solve a problem like a 123-metre spire?

"You ask the audience to use their imaginations," Machin says. "A play can't compete with film, or even the structure itself. But, as fascinating as the architecture is, The Spire is a human drama. It should feel like a chamber piece, claustrophobic, with its thematic thrust carried within its characters.

"A lot of scenes are at the spire crossing, or in the swallows' nest [the builder's shed high up inside the spire, where Mason and Pangall conduct their affair]. I looked for opportunities to make it theatrical and symbolic. A hugely dramatic moment, for instance, is the first blow into the fabric of the cathedral. We choreographed that to suggest assault. And its language is theatrical: fabulous language is more effective on stage than in film, because people expect words."

Golding does not attempt the Middle English his characters would have spoken, instead giving them a pared-down, timeless vocabulary with an emphasis on Anglo-Saxon rather than Latinate words. Nor is there much technical or historical detail in the play. "This is not a documentary about local history or how the spire was built," says Machin says, "but a fictional account about a process of self-discovery. The man at the end is very different from the man at the beginning."

"WHAT Jocelin did required madness and hubris," Spottiswoode says. "Those cathedrals are 20 great buildings put up by very few - men who said they could do the impossible, like going to the moon. The cathedrals are stunning: they silence us with their beauty. What other work of art does that? But, between the time when they were built and now, very little has happened - there are no more great buildings like these."

Or at least, not yet. But if the current Dean of Salisbury, the Very Revd June Osborne, gets her way, there may be. "Oh, yes," she laughs, "I have lots of Dean Jocelin ambitions. But. . ." (and does she sound just a little wistful here?) "Jocelin had unlimited power. These days, there are endless checks and balances - not just the Cathedrals Fabric Commission, and English Heritage, but lots of people who are able to say 'No.'

"Having a team is the best antidote for delusion, self-aggrandisement, and stupidity, and a good dean tries to build a team that puts a restriction on his or her personal judgement and builds a common mind. This is why women make such good deans - they know the art of ennobling people, giving people space to have a voice and feel valued.

"Nevertheless, it is still a very powerful role; you are driving forward the needs of an organisation, a plan, and this doesn't happen unless leaders have a vision."

Does she have one? "A vision doesn't come ready-made - you discern it. This is why my fundamental commitment is to prayer, to being a priest. Being Dean is a conflicted role. I see the needs of the cathedral and diocese; and that I am being asked to make financial decisions, keep control of the budget - which can mean, for instance, having to make people redundant.

"But you are not an HR department, not just a champion of PR and financial stability, but a warrior for spirituality, protecting and promoting the cathedral as a spiritual place, a place where people can meet Christ and have their lives transformed."

She is delighted that the play will draw attention to the cathedral. "It is a good moment for the story, because we are all thinking about moral integrity . . . city bankers and so on. Jocelin is not a brute, not unsympathetic, but his visionary passion drives him to be obsessive: he surrenders his moral integrity. The Spire is about the tension between the demands of the job and moral integrity."

The Spire is, indeed, about what Golding called "the darkness of man's heart". But it is also about the astonishingly beautiful things that humankind can create, especially - perhaps only - when fired by faith.

"I would like the audience to come away inspired by the achievement of that building," Machin says, looking across the Playhouse forecourt to the cathedral spire. "I want them to see it with new eyes. . . I want them come out, and look at it . . . and be amazed."

The Spire by William Golding, adapted by Roger Spottiswoode, is on at the Salisbury Playhouse from 1 to 24 November. For further details, visit www.salisburyplayhouse.com, or phone the box office: 01722 320 333.

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