The Sanctuary Lamp Review and Interview

April 20, 2010


Tom Murphy’s The Sanctuary Lamp caused outrage and walk outs when it first played to an Abbey audience 35 years ago. So vitriolic was the reaction of the general public and their clerical shit stirrers that Murphy went into a self imposed exile but thankfully returned just two years later to continue in his role as one of our least typical playwrights. He has revived his most controversial work for B*Spoke Theatre Company which is updated and fresh from a raved about run in London’s Arcola Theatre.

My, how the years have changed us. The average punter in last nights audience at the Civic Theatre would have been middle aged during the plays initial run but rather than reaching for their pitchforks and petroleum they were relaxed, contemplative and occasionally a little bemused at a show which has been described as anti clerical, anti spiritual and anti Catholic. Were you to look you would find evidence of all this here but it is also supernal, life affirming and, naturally given the current climate, thought provoking.

Shadows and echoes, light and sound meld with Monica Frawleys excellent set which simply yet evocatively plops us into the heart of the action-a house of god where three characters seek refuge for the night. There’s Harry( Robert O Mahony) a former circus strongman, betrayed by his wife and his best friend, recently taken into the employee of a bookish Monsignor (Bosco Hogan). His responsibilities include acting as a clerk, keeping track of the monsignors appointments and keeping the sanctuary lamp burning, a symbol in both the Jewish and Christian faiths of God or Christ’s everlasting presence (Harry is a Jew). He comes across Maudie (Kate Brennan) in the course of his duties hiding out in an underused confessional, which now significantly doubles as a broom closet. In search of forgiveness and desperate to discuss her baby (who is either dead or was taken from her by a nun who-as only nuns can- was smiling and frowning at the same time) he adapts a patriarchal role towards her. Their attempts to fill in what is missing in the other is quickly shattered by the arrival of Harry’s former friend, the lecherous but lonely Francisco (Declan Conlon).

The three theorize about family, forgiveness and responsibility embroidering the tone of the debate with their ideas on the nature of god, the hypocrisies of the clergy and the role of religion in all their lives. They are angry, hopeful and perplexed and even the Monsignor, during his two brief appearances fails to play the cards the way we’d expect, putting a likeable and thoughtful face to the “poxy con” that is Catholicism and the men “distorted by sex with a tendency for violence”.

It’s a deeply human play. The characters are passionate, lonely, protective and in desperate need of feeling connected, either to one another or to a higher force. They are violent, manipulative and in denial, unable to face up to or accept their truths. It is wonderfully written and well acted particularly by Brennan who is beguiling as Maudie and the most natural thing on the stage.

Knowing now what we didn’t then it is magnificent to reflect with hindsight on the building blocks, which construct our very natures. My one concern is that the people who select what goes on our national stages are continuing to turn to plays or events from the past as if religion is not something that affects every corner of the country today. It is the theatrical equivalent of getting a post card from our nations 70s psyche. Who among the current crop of playwrights is engraining in words the troubles of our day?

Here the casts youngest member Kate Brennan tells us about how playing this role has been a dream come true and discusses how a play accused of being anti-Catholic on its first run fits into this new ecumenical landscape.

For those who don’t know what is The Sanctuary Lamp about?

Basically my character, called Maudie, is 16 years old and has been hiding out in the church when an ex strongman called Harry arrives upstairs. The Monsignor there gives him job, not knowing that he is Jewish. Another character comes along called Francisco, who is a friend of Harry’s and who Harry has issues with since the days they were in the circus together. The characters meet and spend the night in the church swapping stories and go on their own personal journey.

It deals with a lot of the hypocrisy’s of the Catholic Church, but it is definitely anti-spiritual. These three people happen to find themselves in the church and hope to find solace there. It’s anti clerical rather than anti spiritual.

It was originally staged in the 70s. What do you think the function of the play serves now compared to what it may have served back then?

It’s not as shocking now as it was then. Back in the 70s it caused riots and walk outs every night. But I don’t think that’s what the intent was and I don’t think it will shock people as much now given all the things that have come out in recent years about the church. It will still give massive food for thought and still unbelievable relevant. In no way is it dated. In hindsight, looking at all the speeches, it’s fascinating to look at and I think that hindsight adds to the experience.

Do you think there is a danger of people throwing the baby out with the bathwater, going in the opposite direction to how they were in the 70s? Instead of being anti-clerical now many people seem to be embracing anti-spirituality?

I can only speak from my own experiences and I don’t think that people are anti spiritual. I think people will always need something to believe in and even though it may not be the Catholic religion I think its human nature to look for something beyond this life. I think its a natural thing and I hope that people aren’t going so far as to turn their back on their spiritual side just because of fuck ups that people have made in the Catholic church.

You worked this time round with the writer of the play who was also working as the director. How did that pan out in contrast to say when you worked on Caligula or Macbeth?

It was absolutely a dream come true to, first of all, get to do the play, as it was a part I always wanted to pay, but to have Tom direct it as well was just the icing on the cake. Sometimes people are afraid of working with writers who direct but Tom was just a joy. He’s an actor’s director.

The Sanctuary Lamp runs at the Civic Theatre. Tallaght till Saturday before running at the Riverbanks Arts Centre in Newbridge between the 26th-28th of April.

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