ON 1 NOVEMBER 2011, the Dean of St Paul's, the Rt Revd Graeme
Knowles, resigned; Temple, by Steve Waters, is a play that
suggests sympathetically why that happened.
It clearly takes place in the context of certain well-documented
events concerning the Dean and the cathedral, the City of London,
and the Occupy movement. Yet it also claims to be a "fictional
account" of these events - not a documentary.
Bishop Knowles was indubitably Dean of St Paul's at the time of
the events described in the play; and yet he is not referred to by
name, and nor are a couple of the other significant players in this
drama. So what is Temple exactly? Apart, that is, from
being a stirring, deeply involving piece of theatre?
Set on a single morning in October 2011, Temple turns on the
Chapter's decision to reopen St Paul's, a fortnight after it
controversially closed its doors because of Occupy London's
infamous encampment on its doorstep. The decision to make a U-turn
was not an easy one, of course. In the play, a vote has taken
place, after a late night of fraught argument, and this is its
From the start, the play's director Howard Davies makes sure the
audience is constantly reminded of the protesters' presence - of
the song repeatedly rising up from the camp to the window of the
Dean's office - even if the protesters themselves remain off stage.
Over everything looms the dome of Christopher Wren's magnificent
Waters sets the action in a single room, the Dean's office,
giving it the air of an ecclesiastical farce. As he prepares to
celebrate the eucharist, and then host a press conference, this
(unnamed) Dean receives visits from an (unnamed) Bishop of London,
an (unnamed) Canon Chancellor, and others. The Canon Chancellor
breaks rank by showily tweeting his resignation at 10.35 a.m.; the
traditionalist verger can imagine finding it difficult only if he
then shows up for the lunchtime service: "I'll find it very hard to
do the Peace with him."
The Canon Chancellor admits that he also took the chance, when
he escaped south from St Paul's, across the river, to drop in on
Lambeth Palace, where he was received by an impressive but
inscrutable Archbishop of Canterbury: "He said almost nothing, as
The Dean, meanwhile, reproaches himself for sanctioning the
closure of the cathedral in the first place, and has to resist the
dubious blandishments, including cakes, of the City lawyer who
comes calling at this point. She takes an alliance between St
Paul's and its business-minded neighbours as a given. Those Occupy
troublemakers must be moved on. The Dean reminds her about the
ancient right to free speech associated with this spot. She leaves,
taking the cakes with her.
As you might expect of a Davies production, Temple is
theatrically exemplary. At the right moment, an ambulance is heard,
blaring its urgent way past the encampment. As the Dean, Simon
Russell Beale is the absolute picture of troubled leadership,
unable to sit still, or cross the room without giving the
impression that hysteria is trying to disguise itself as
He and Rebecca Humphries, as the Dean's scatty, drafted-in
personal assistant, conspire to create a sense of a relationship
rapidly developing under the pressure of a crisis. There is a
frisson, too, in that this is a show at the Donmar Warehouse: not
exactly in the shadow of St Paul's, it nevertheless feels like the
right theatre to be re-staging and re-examining a piece of recent
local history which happens to have been of national
Russell Beale is, in fact, never off stage, and Temple
would be nothing without his virtuosity - his reduction to tears,
his gabbling with clarity (how many actors can do that so well?),
his way of conveying the intelligence and mildness of a man for
whom the phrase "you are vain" (said of the Canon Giles Fraser
figure, a self-appointed "Judas") is the weightiest possible
insult. And there is nothing wrong with the supporting cast,
either, with Malcolm Sinclair giving the Bishop of London a rather
absurd, grand air, and Paul Higgins making the Canon Chancellor a
wiry, untrustworthy pseudo-spokesman for Occupy.
There are some odd moments in Waters's script, however, which
the production struggles to disguise. The Canon Chancellor, for
example, feels compelled to return to the cathedral after his
resignation. It is not clear why, exactly, but it conveniently
leads to a showdown with the Dean, and the necessary scenes of
recrimination and reconciliation. The lawyer is a bland caricature.
The PA and the verger are not wholly credible.
It is also strange that Temple is a play scrupulously
based on real events and real people, but it chooses to name one
and not the other. Occupy London is Occupy London, down to the
impossibility of negotiating with such an amorphous organisation.
Is Sinclair's Bishop of London Richard Chartres, though? Is it of
Canon Fraser or some "fictional" stand-in that he wryly remarks,
"Canon Chancellor, you seem to be trending again"? (The Dean who is
and is not Bishop Knowles can only bleat impotently "Another
tweet!" as some irritating piece of news is announced in the modern
This is a "fictional account" that, for the most part, cleaves
closely to fact, in terms of both events and personalities, and yet
slips into conversation some (surely) sensational inventions, such
as the Bishop's hint that the Dean ought to consider his position.
The overall effect is fascinating, unsettling, and possibly
Temple is at the Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, London
WC2, until 25 July. Box office: phone 0844 871 7624.