The Sanctuary Lamp (Arcola Theatre 12/3/10) 21 March 2010

Here is a surprising gem. It's not what I expected but that's not a bad thing. Actually, I'm not sure what I expected but sometimes if you just dive in you can be surprised.

Surprises always abound when entering Arcola Theatre's Studio 1, you never know how it will be configured. For b*spoke theatre company' production of The Sanctuary Lamp you immediately feel as if you are in a church. The five or six rows of seats flank one long side while the other is half of a church interior, dimly lit - about six pews, a confessional, pulpit and the titular sanctuary lamp - with a smoky haze effect diffusing the light (design by Monica Frawley). There is also some wonderful sound design that hits you from the get go - a reverb, echo that gives the impression of being in a large empty place that continues throughout the production (sound design by Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty). Subtle yet effective.

What happens then reminded me of getting involved in a good book. Harry (Robert O'Mahoney) an ex circus strongman meets the churches Monsignor (Bosco Hogan) and as he has nowhere to go is hired as a sort of a church custodian / security guard and one of his duties is keeping the sanctuary lamp lit by changing the candle.

Now, I didn't know what a sanctuary lamp was, it was discussed a bit in the play, so I looked it up, and to save you the bother:

'The General Instruction of the Roman Missal in the Catholic Church, for instance, states (in 316): "In accordance with traditional custom, near the tabernacle a special lamp, fueled by oil or wax, should be kept alight to indicate and honour the presence of Christ." The sanctuary lamp is placed before the tabernacle or aumbry in Roman Catholic, Old Catholic, and Anglican churches as a sign that the Blessed Sacrament is reserved or stored.' - Wikipedia

As the confessional is now used a storage cupboard, Harry takes to using the sanctuary lamp to confess his problems with his wife and his once close friend Francisco as part of a small circus that performs for private parties. This is a longish segment which initially worried me as it seemed the pace and story were going to be very slow going. I wasn't entirely sure where all the talk was going and I had difficulty seeing when the actual story was going to emerge. However, like in the recent Serenading Louie at the Donmar, the longish start pays off. All the information given in that beginning makes the rest of the story all the more powerful because you get a sense of who the character is and what his station in life has become.

Interesting side note - both Serenading Louie and The Sanctuary Lamp first premiered around the same time, the early 70's, and although from two different countries, have that same aesthetic, the longish opening segment whose purpose is not to necessarily dump you in into the story but to set the tone, give the audience a sense of the characters lives. This seems to definitely have been of an era as I can't remember any recent plays giving that sort of breathing space, everything seems to drop you right in the middle of the action. It made me realise how the theatre has pretty much gone the same way as film.

Have a look at films pre Jaws, they were well structured stories with great characterisations which were not so much concerned with the immediate hook but in allowing time to build the scenario which makes subsequent events resonate even more. Post Jaws, box office became more important and so did quick hooks and thrills. To an extent I feel that plays went this same route. I guess it also comes down to talent - it's difficult to write expository dialogue that doesn't give you the feeling of reading a quick summary or programme notes before the actual story starts.

But I digress. A second character is introduced properly, we've seen glimpses of young girl. Once found by Harry, we hear the story of Maudie (Kate Brennan) who has also sought sanctuary in the church. After many tentative steps Harry gains Maudie's trust and she reveals her secrets, the reasons why she has gravitated to the church. The final piece in the puzzle, a man (Declan Conlon) looking for Harry becomes the third in the triad of people seeking refuge.

On the surface it seems rather straightforward and predictable. At least that's what I was thinking when in fact this is furthest from the truth. Based on what was revealed early on, I assumed many connections and events that never came to pass. It's a play that never goes where you expect and doesn't set itself up to lead the viewer down the wrong path only to throw a spanner in the works. What evolves is very heartfelt and genuine, dealing with the complexities of forgiveness, truth, faith and spirituality versus religion and church. It's never heavy handed and never absolutely damning of one or praising of the other. It never preaches, it engages.

Like Arcola's last production Heldenplatz, there seems to be an agenda, something that the author has to say for or against something. In Heldenplatz it was Austria, in The Sanctuary Lamp the church and maybe more generally - organised religion. From what I have read this play caused quite a stir when it was first produced. Seeing how explosive and anti-church ideology can be today, I can imagine it could ruffle some collars. There is however, a big difference between Heldenplatz and The Sanctuary Lamp. Whereas Heldenplatz seemed to be created to condemn and work solely on an intellectual level, The Sanctuary Lamp's ideology is born organically from the characters while engaging the mind and the heart.

Considering the author Tom Murphy has also directed this production, I find the plays ability to 'argue' it's points in a balanced way surprising and is a testament to why it works. More often than not, there is a loss of objectivity when a playwright directs their own work. That's definitely not the case here. Just the opposite. Like reading a good book, or seeing an engaging 70's film, I got lost in The Sanctuary Lamp and it kept me thinking for a good few days after.