The Sanctuary Lamp

Tom Murphy
b*spoke theatre company
Arcola theatre and touring
(2010)

Production photo

This is a fine production, directed by the dramatist, of a play that, when premiered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1975, caused outrage among Catholic society across Ireland by its anti-clericalism and apparent blasphemy..

It is a powerful piece that can still shock even someone as secular as myself by placing this action and this dialogue inside a church. Whatever one's beliefs we have been brought up to show respect for those of others and with a tradition of respect for religious places and Monica Frawley's austere set has a stern authority. It lacks the usual Catholic ornament but with its huge grey pillars, black pews and shafts of coloured light speaks strongly of religious discipline. However, this is a church where the incumbent Monsignor seems to have no congregation and the confessional is used as a broom cupboard. Although the still-burning sanctuary lamp is supposed to mark the ever presence of God its bleakness seems a contradiction. But for the characters put before us it still offers a kind of sanctuary.

Out of the darkness flits a waif-like figure pirouetting in the shadows. From the same space comes a man who at first could be a homeless tramp, though in the light his clothes are in too good condition, his carriage to positive; he may have hit hard times but still has pride in his appearance. Were they together? And doing what? But it turns out that they were not yet aware the other was taking refuge in the darkness.

Harry is a former circus strongman who has toured the country with his contortionist wife, another strongman (to whom she switched her attentions) and a dwarf. And there's Maudie, a teenage unmarried mother whose baby has either died or been taken from her and she's been told he is dead.

The priest discovers Harry and offers him the job of clerk: looking after the lace, tending the lamp, taking bookings for weddings, funerals and christenings and locking up when he goes home at night. Harry makes the church his home and takes the girl, whom the priest does not know about, under his wing. This situation seems about to be upturned when another man slips in through an unlocked door. He is Francisco the other strongman. It looks as though things are going to escalate into violence.

At its simplest the play unfolds the characters' stories - even the Monsignor has a tale of being passed over, but it is also a multi-layered debate about faith, conscience and responsibility. Tom Murphy writes richly, placing great demands upon the actors who do him proud handling his long speeches with skill so that they engage you directly. Robert O'Mahoney's rich-voiced Harry manages to suggest both the bulk and strength of the strongman and the way that strength is ebbing from him. Declan Conlon's Francisco, threateningly sinister at first and blatantly sure of himself, gives vehemence to his views on priests and Bosco Hogan gives the ineffectual Monsignor a clear sincerity of intention, while Kate Brennan's Maude captures her naïve innocence.

This is a compelling production of a play that is not an attack on faith but questions the conduct of the Church, anticipating some of the soul-searching that has had to take place after the revelations made since it was written.

At Arcola Theatre until 3rd April then Everyman Palace theatre, Cork 13th - 17th April 10th; Civic theatre, Dublin 20th - 24th April 2010. More dates to follow.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton