When Tom Murphy's play The Sanctuary Lamp was first produced in Dublin nearly 30 years ago, its anti-clerical slant aroused huge controversy in Ireland. What comes across strongly in Jacob Murray's deft production, a UK premiere for the Royal Exchange Studio, is how three lost souls of varying or no religious belief feel drawn to something indefinable but powerful enough to encourage them to express their struggle to find their destinies: "We're all God's children, whatever religion..." Whether they succeed is debatable, but just as we in the audience are mesmerised by Di Seymour's realistic set, so they seem to feel something of the significance of the sanctuary lamp, the "constant presence" that burns overhead.
Before the play begins, with Bach being gently played on the piano, the audience whispers as if at a funeral or a seance. The man occupying the front pew looks withdrawn and a bit odd. It turns out that he's called Harry Stone, and before you can say "Hail Mary", he has been offered the job of church clerk by the Monsignor. Former strong man in a circus, Harry has fallen on hard times, as he later explains, growling and prowling round the stage. It's all quite operatic, even Pagliacci-like in its description of the passions and jealousies of the circus. Terence Wilton gives a moving, muscular performance as Harry, unexpectedly tender in his stumbling attempt to reassure Maudie.
Sensitively played by Rachel Brogan, she's the frightened waif who uses the church as a bolthole, and her story, told with poignancy and incomprehension, is both curious and pitiful. Character dynamics take interesting shape and even the Monsignor (John Watts) - his distant, dry manner hiding the frustrated hurt of being the victim of church "jiggery pokery" - eventually reveals some understanding of human nature.
Harry may be the "half-lapsed Jew in residence in a Catholic church with a young chick", but it's Francisco (a shifty Declan Conlon) who tries it on with Maudie. He's that kind of guy, the blackguard who sneaked Harry's wife Olga, prompting Harry's sloping-off from his old life, and who has turned up here like a bad penny. Vehement in his denouncement of the Jesuits who brought him up, Francisco is both sinister in his unsmiling humour and dazzling, his tongue loosened by liberal amounts of altar wine, when describing the fatal, final circus act that he and Olga went ahead with minus Harry.
With the shadowy church backdrop, blood seems in danger of being spilled by penknife or candlestick, but, instead, it is words that are spilled. The critic Fintan O'Toole described Murphy as a writer, who is "neither a naturalist nor an expressionist but a fabulist, a creator of daringly imagined stories". And in the gradual unfolding of his characters' lives, Murphy's words certainly weave a kind of magic.
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