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Diary: Mark Oakley

22 March 2024


Inside out

LIVING near to Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, I was keen to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the indoor Sam Wanamaker Theatre, on the same site, by seeing Ola Ince’s production of Othello. The theatre is modelled on the candlelit theatres of Shakespeare’s London; his later works, such as The Tempest, were written for such places. It is built with a frame of green oak in a brick shell, and the seating is, shall we say, “cosy”.

In this production, Othello is a detective chief inspector in the contemporary Metropolitan Police. Ken Nwosu plays Othello’s descent into a mental hell, alongside Ira Mandela Siobhan, who embodies Othello’s subconscious, writhing in tortured, pleading, despairing ways next to Othello’s calmer exterior. It made me think how we would treat people differently and with a bit more tenderness if we could physically see each other’s wordless inner lives.

Othello is a play about envy, racism, and misogyny, and feels as fresh as ever. It was, however, the line “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving” that sliced into our competitive celebrity obsession — which is, perhaps, our own form of madness.

All for terra firma

JUST up the road is moored the reconstruction of the Golden Hinde. This galleon, captained by Sir Francis Drake as he circumnavigated the world, is remarkable. The spaces are so cramped and the ceilings are so low that I’m not sure how anybody on board ever moved anywhere. My back was so painfully bent I could see only my feet for the rest of the day. To discover that there were animals on board as well was almost unbelievable, and made me look at the “poop deck” in quite a new light.

Being a Shropshire lad, I don’t think I was made for the oceans. I remember feeling very peaky on a small boat in Turkey which was being thrown around by a strong wind. The lady beside me, who looked like Miss Marple in a life-vest, leaned over and asked, “More sea, vicar?”

Original sin

IN MY new job, I’m finding that, by bedtime, I’m not really able to read anything of depth because, after a long and busy day, my whole body replicates a sloth making its way up a telegraph pole. So, I’ve taken to reading crime novels. Clergy, of course, feature frequently in them, from Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage, with the churchwarden Colonel Lucius Protheroe, to Richard Coles’s more recent Murder Before Evensong, in which all hell breaks loose when the vicar decides to install a lavatory in the church.

In Coles’s latest book, a mention of “Bishop Oakley” confirms it as a work of pure fiction.

Mirror image

I WAS delighted to be invited to give a lunchtime talk at the National Gallery. I chose Bassano’s The Good Samaritan, and, standing next to it, waffled happily on to an engaging crowd. What struck me about the Samaritan and the injured man, in this particular painting, is how similar they look. These two men, finding themselves in an encounter neither ever imagined, and having to rethink their world-views because of it, could actually, in the light of mercy, be brothers.

The painting has darkened over the years, and you have, sadly, to struggle to see the mule that the victim is being lifted on to. I quickly had to clarify this when I found myself saying it was difficult to see the man’s ass.

The parable remains one of my favourites. When Jesus told his enquirer that the greatest commandment was to love God and your neighbour, the man responded by asking not “What is love?” but “Who is my neighbour?” We tend to want to know whom we are allowed not to love; who is beyond our worrying about. Jesus’s story answers the question that he should have asked.

As Holy Week approaches, I am aware that Christ often addresses the questions that the human heart should be engaged with rather than the ones that we think are relevant, but which are so often just self-serving. For everything else that these holy days teach us, at their heart is the revelation of something perverse about human beings which Othello identifies: “Men in rage strike those that wish them best.”

Take this bread

THE danger of working in a cathedral that is right next door to an enormous, 1000- year-old food market is that eventually you need to go on what one of the market workers calls the “Resurrection Diet” — three days, and the stones just roll away.

It is a busy place, with about 80,000 visitors a day, and, of course, has all the international character of south London. As Easter approaches, you’ll find Polish babka as well as pulla from Finland, colomba di Pasqua from Italy, Jamaican Easter spice cake, and capirotada from Mexico. Ukrainian paska will be popular, I suspect.

The traders are very keen to tackle the great evil of food waste. Plan Zheroes, which helps food businesses to donate their surplus food easily and safely to charities and community groups, collects surplus produce from many of them; and there are great projects such as the Borough Food Cooperative, which sells very cheaply food that might have been thrown away.

Food is a great symbol of the future. We need it to live another day, to be strengthened to achieve things in life, and to challenge the many injustices that paralyse human and environmental flourishing. I am telling myself that my Lent resolutions need to change now into Easter ones — and sharing our food a little more widely may be a good place to start.

The Very Revd Dr Mark Oakley is the Dean of Southwark, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.

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