Lear last year Simon Russell Beale has said he's not quite ready to find a way of topping that challenge in the classics, so this year he's appearing in two new plays instead. First up is Temple, Steve Waters' fictionalised version of the Occupy London movement in 2011, which ended up camped outside St Paul's Cathedral. Among safety fears, the Cathedral was closed - an unprecedented event in a church that stayed open throughout the Blitz, and a place of worship that predates the City of London itself. SRB plays an unnamed, fictional version of the Dean of St Paul's, on whom responsibility for every decision taken eventually falls. It's St Jude's Day - patron saint of lost causes - and after a fortnight closed to the public, the Cathedral will be reopening its doors, with the Dean himself leading the morning Eucharist.
It's not been a universally popular decision, and the Canon Chancellor (Paul Higgins) privately resigned at the last night's meeting, believing that the protesters' safety is being compromised. With the world's eye on the Dean's next move, the Canon only complicates matters by tweeting the news of his resignation earlier than agreed.
Waters uses the common dramatic tool of introducing an outsider who doesn't know how things usually work so can act as the Wise Fool - in this case the Dean's new PA (Rebecca Humphries,) daughter of a parish vicar but unused to the politics of the Church of England at this level. She adds a blunt touch to the somewhat acidic office politics of clerics under pressure.
SRB is believable as the Dean struggling through the difficult decisions presented to him, but as written it's hard to quite buy that he was chosen for the job, let alone headhunted for it: It's established that he's very old-fashioned even compared to the other clergy (this running gag at one point making a great punchline of "flat white,") but he doesn't seem to have any leadership qualities - everyone from the Bishop of London (Malcolm Sinclair) down to the Verger (Anna Calder-Marshall making good use of her trademark death glare) seems much more resolute in where they stand than he does.
This niggles throughout, although it's resolved in a way by the Dean admitting he sees himself as the Pontius Pilate of the story for consenting to the - possibly violent - eviction of the protesters: Pilate was apparently an effective ruler and impressive peacemaker for decades BUT YOU EXECUTE ONE DEITY... Waters' path to this revelation isn't always clear but it's involving, with a lot of moments of humour to lighten the soul-searching, and Howard Davies' production - on a grand set from Tim Hatley with a final flourish concealed in its walls - takes us steadily, if not always with as much pace as might be hoped, through the journey.
Temple by Steve Waters is booking until the 25th of July at the Donmar Warehouse.
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.