In October 2011, the anti-capitalist demonstrators going under the collective title of Occupy tried to set up a protest camp outside the Stock Exchange. Thwarted by a pre-emptive injunction taken out by the Corporation of London, they camped instead outside the west door of St Paul’s Cathedral, posing the Dean and Chapter a set of insoluble ethical, political and practical problems. Steve Waters’s play examines the range of solutions to those problems and in doing so highlights the intense quandary in which the Dean in particular found himself.
St Paul’s Cathedral was closed for several days by the protest, which appalled the reactionary elements in both the Church and society: there was much talk of Occupy achieving what Hitler’s Luftwaffe had failed to do. In the play, this viewpoint is expressed by the Verger, who is surely a paid-up subscriber to the Daily Mail. Adam Stoddard conveys well the officiousness and sanctimony of a jumped-up minor functionary.
The progressive wing of the Church, with its unswerving sympathy for the Occupy cause, is represented by the Canon Chancellor. He has just resigned in protest against the Chapter’s decision to re-open the cathedral. Jack Edwards gives an effective performance as a highly politicised firebrand who is excited and invigorated by the situation. However, he would not have achieved such an important position as young as he appears (the real Canon Chancellor was 47 at the time) and would have acquired a greater smoothness of manner. He has the best joke in a play that has several touches of humour: ‘I did a PhD on Nietzsche – would you come to me for help?’
The Bishop of London supports the Dean but tries to make him understand that the world has changed: ‘Our old exquisite ways are not serving us well,’ he says. This might be seen as commendable, but John Billington skilfully portrays a two-faced, fence-sitting character that is an equally valid interpretation.
Kim Fletcher as a PA who is initially irritating but proves to be full of sound commonsense, and Lotte Fletcher-Jonk as a city lawyer, representing the pragmatic, legalistic viewpoint, give strong support.
The central character is the Dean, assailed by all the different interpretations of the situation represented by the various characters. It is a challenging part but Simon Meredith pulls it off, depicting a decent man, possibly over-aware of his own shortcomings, who is being forced to choose between principle and pragmatism. The Dean desperately wants to do the right thing, but what he really wants is to be allowed to run his church. Simon Meredith’s performance attracts great sympathy, even if a little less heavy sighing and brow-clutching in the early part of the piece would not go amiss.
The limited space and the static nature of a wordy play give Paul Nelson little obvious chance to display his directorial talents, but effective use is made of a window at the back of the stage, overlooking the Occupy camp. The only technical query is whether the vestments worn by the Bishop and the Canon Chancellor in the last scene are correct – they looked very odd to me.
Because the Dean is such a sympathetic character, part of the arc of the story is that both the Verger and the Canon Chancellor moderate their views towards the end of the play and treat him with the respect he deserves, not because of his position but because he is a fundamentally good man doing his best. So this interesting and thought-provoking play ends on a positive note. It is worth catching one of the remaining performances: 4-8 April at 7.45.