(Michael Billington's article appeared in the Guardian, 3/12.)


The Sanctuary Lamp

Arcola, London

Tom Murphy's extraordinary, brooding play caused a storm in Dublin in 1975. But seeing it now, in a fine production directed by the author and imported from Dublin by the b*spoke theatre company, it strikes me as anti-clerical, rather than anti-religious. It attacks the Catholic church as "the great middleman industry", but there is something defiantly spiritual about its portrait of three lost souls struggling with the riddle of existence in an abandoned church.

Harry, an ex-circus strongman, gets offered the job of church clerk by a bumbling Monsignor. For the homeless Harry, the church is a handy place to doss. But he is soon joined by Francisco, a shifty juggler and his onetime friend, and the waif-like Maudie, haunted by the death of her illegitimate child. As the trio spend a night in the darkened church, Harry's protectiveness towards Maudie is contrasted with Francisco's crude exploitativeness. Harry, whose main task is to keep the sanctuary lamp lit, also has inextinguishable religious longings that offset Francisco's vehement dismissal of Catholic priests "weaving their theological cobwebs".


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