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Ignatius comes to Kennington

20 February 2015

Peter Graystone sees a play about the founder of the Jesuits

THE writer and director Jonathan Moore knows how to grab an audience's attention. Within the first ten minutes of his play about the founder of the Jesuits, there is a swordfight, a post-coital dash with a furious father in pursuit, and a wounding battle. The pace is both the strength and weakness of Inigo, the story of how St Ignatius of Loyola came to establish the Society of Jesus.

It is a strength, because the play never drags. Ignatius was brought up in a blacksmith's family and converted to Christianity while recovering from a war wound. He found in the life of Jesus the role-model he had previously sought in the knights of Camelot. During a pilgrimage, he abandoned the weapons of his youth and adopted a life of simplicity and service of the poor. He wrote his Spiritual Exercises, encouraging Christians to imagine themselves vividly into biblical scenes, which brought him the attention both of devoted followers and of the Inquisition, in front of whom he stood trial for heresy eight times.

At the university in Paris, he gathered around him the men who would become the Society of Jesus. Their hope was to go to Jerusalem and see out their days in lives of obscurity, serving the poor. But circumstances took them instead to Rome, where it was obvious why Ignatius's message that the Church should rid itself of bureaucracy and wealth brought him enemies, but also an enduring reputation. It is a terrific story, efficiently presented on a bare stage by a cast of eight. The trial scenes are particularly taut and tense.

The weakness is that, with dozens of characters and so many short scenes, there is rarely space for ideas to be developed. Within a few swift lines of dialogue, people have transformative spiritual experiences or unconvincingly change their world-view. There is a particular irony in attempting to explain the impact of tranquil Ignatian meditation in scenes of relentless speed.

At the production's heart is a fine performance by Fayez Bakhsh. His Ignatius is believably charismatic, and conveys the godliness that would one day lead to canonisation, but tempered by an all-too-human obstinacy.

The decision to punctuate the 16th-century action with modern music is unwise. Bob Dylan singing "Knocking on Heaven's Door" as Ignatius finds faith is an attempt to underline the play's contemporary relevance, but actually distracts the audience with wry laughter.

When Pope Francis, himself a Jesuit, is being outspoken on behalf of reform and rediscovery of the Roman Catholic Church's mission to the poor, pointing out so assertively the significance for today's world is unnecessary.

Moore speaks of "the strange providence that . . . Ignatius has come to Rome once again". His is not a perfect play, but it is a timely one, and it deserves to be seen.

Inigo continues at the White Bear Theatre, 138 Kennington Park Road, London SE11, until 28 February. Tickets are available from whitebeartheatre.co.uk; or phone 0844 8700887.

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