Hallelujah! Thank the Lord!
The hot streak of gory, grimy, sexploitation plays that ran through spring and summer was finally broken ‘Racing Demon’.
The fine city of Bath was an apt place to wash away the grit and soak up the witty, politically astute comedy of David Hare’s 1990examination of the state of the Church of England.
Racing Demon is one part of Hare’s triptych examining the pillars of the British establishment, alongside Murmuring Judges and Absence of War, which scrutinised the judiciary and legislature respectively.
Some of the references, to the ordination of women for example, were outdated, but the fundamental themes of the play remain eternal: the nature of faith; the difficulty of defining and doing ‘good’; the tension between the active evangelical wing and the passive, pastoral traditions within the clergy.
These complex and challenging questions were explored through the story arcs of four priests working in a loose communal arrangement in a deprived south London neighbourhood.
David Haig was given star billing, and he excellently conveyed the buttoned-up Englishman archetype, suppressing deeper passions and pains, that has become his trademark. His Lionel is the hero of the play, when it is read as a critique of an institution that has forgotten the importance of humility.
As a man outside of the church, however, as a husband and father, he is a villain. He has utterly neglected his family in the service of his parishioners, spending so much time in house of God, his home life has collapsed without him noticing.
It would be unjust, however, to focus solely on Haig given the strength of the rest of the cast. Paapa Essiedu gave a powerful performance as the ambitious, proselytising ‘Tony’. Essiedu fizzed with energy, driven by a complex mix of evangelical zeal and semi-suppressed rage in response to a childhood tragedy which, one suspects, drives his need to believe in an all-powerful God.
I wondered at the interval whether the multiple plot-lines and regular scene-changes would make it difficult to land the play in a coherent and satisfying manner. My concerns were allayed. Hare’ brings together the strands with grace, carrying to the characters to a serious of conclusions that satisfied the audience without trying to wrap everything into neat bundles.
The only wrinkle I had, and one I shared with my mum and dad who joined me for the play, was the very final movement. At several points, the fizzily irreverent tone was quickly replaced by a series of particularly bleak endings that felt sudden and tonally jarring.
All in all, however, this was a magnificent performance of a play that is as relevant today as it was a generation ago.
Photo credit: Nobby Clark – firstname.lastname@example.org