Although he has made frequent visits to the West End, Simon Russell Beale has primarily been one of the jewels in Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre crown. But now we have Rufus Norris taking over the NT top job and in his first season there appears to be nothing for Beale.
I am sure he will be back there again but for the time being he is exploring other stages; later this year he will be in a new play at Hampstead but recently he has returned to a favourite venue, the Donmar, in a new play TEMPLE.
Steve Waters' play reminded me of the ad lines that used to accompany real-life film dramas in the 1950s - "Ripped From Today's Headlines" they would proclaim. OK so the Occupy London protest wasn't yesterday nor the day before but it's close enough to remember the febrile atmosphere that surrounded the whole event.
In October 2011, the anti-capitalist Occupy London protesters, blocked from protesting outside the Stock Exchange, pitched up instead outside St Pauls Cathedral for four months. Eventually it all broke up after action by The City of London Corporation but as is often the case in third-party areas drawn into a conflict, the Cathedral found itself coming off the worst. The Canon Chancellor resigned in sympathy with the protesters saying the Cathedral was siding with the wrong side and the Dean of St Pauls later resigned after being criticised in the Cathedral's anti-protester stance. This is the background of the fictionalised version in TEMPLE.
It's the morning after the late-night meeting in the St Pauls' Chapter House where it has been decided that St. Pauls is to be re-opened after the Dean ordered it's doors closed a week ago for "health and safety reasons". Far from restoring order this is the catalyst for more soul-searching by Simon Russell Beale's Dean as he comes under increasing pressure to show his colours to a society that seems to demand black and white positions rather than his more considered approach.
Helping and hindering him in the 90 minute lead-up to the morning's press conference are Anna Calder-Marshall's no-nonsense Virger, Paul Higgins' Canon Chancellor who announces his resignation on Twitter, Rebecca Humphries' temp PA who has hidden depths, Shereen Martin's City of London lawyer - all iPad, high heels and cold-heart - and Malcolm Sinclair's Bishop of London, adept at playing the media game and seeking no dramas at all.
But it was Simon Russell Beale who shone most brilliantly as the conflicted Dean. His trademark delivery of waspish, needling put-downs - weighting a single word in a line so it lands with the precision of a poison dart - was thoroughly utilised but he suggested this was the Dean's way to keep the encroaching world of sound bytes and instant judgements at bay. He made the character of the Dean totally three-dimensional, both intellectually and emotionally.
It was a surprise to find the Dean handled so sympathetically as you would expect the idealistic Canon Chancellor to be the one to be held up as having right on his side but in a moment of quiet intensity, the Dean says to him "You are a vain man" - Beale's sorrowful, pained delivery making it the emotional highpoint of the play.
As usual there was incisive directing by Howard Davies and a carefully-detailed set from Tim Hatley contributed to the production but ultimately I felt it was a play that seemed too full of ideas, more a debate on the place of religion in society today than a successful drama that built on that theory. That doesn't however take away from the quiet desperation at the heart of Simon Russell Beale's memorable performance.