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THEATER REVIEW : Struggling to Keep the Faith : David Hare's 'Racing Demon' Probes Britain's Religious Quandary

October 07, 1994|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

"I have no theology," says Streaky, a drunk Anglican priest in David Hare's "Racing Demon," which had its American premiere Wednesday at the Doolittle Theatre. And yet Streaky goes on to express his faith in a monologue to God. "The whole thing's so clear. You're there. In people's happiness. Tonight, in the taste of that drink. Or the love of my friends. The whole thing's so simple. Infinitely loving. Why do people find it so hard?"

That is a very good question, and Hare seeks to answer it in the 1990 "Racing Demon," the first play in a trilogy that considers the vast gulf between Britain's most powerful institutions and the human beings they fail to help.

In fact Streaky (Adrian Scarborough) does have a theology, a good one, perhaps the only one. But in the Church that Hare depicts, Streaky's theology is just about irrelevant. To American audiences, or to anyone who is not in awe of the Anglican Church, Hare's depiction of an institution rife with hypocrisy may be extremely obvious. The Royal National Theatre production, directed by Richard Eyre, supplies a properly ponderous tone to examine what for church members must be weighty questions. But, away from home, "Racing Demon" has the feel of a work that is preaching to the converted.

The political problems of the church may be a metaphor for the problems of all British liberal institutions, as Eyre and Hare argue in an interview in the play's program. But the church is not just any institution, it is one that claims to have the answers to how people should live, answers that it cannot enforce with the strength of law (Hare explores the problems of the judiciary in "Murmuring Judges," the second play in the trilogy). So how can the church persuade people to follow its non-compulsory teachings, particularly in poor urban areas where parishioners are dropping out in large numbers?

These are the questions that Hare's inner-city priests wrestle with, both against each other and against the diocese as well. No one actually has any ideas about how to help the masses, represented here by a poor, young black woman named Stella (Joy Richardson), whose husband forces her to have an abortion. Lionel, played by Oliver Ford Davies, who won the Olivier Award for the role, is a kindly, befuddled and ineffectual priest who offers friendship to Stella and a lame prayer. This inflames the young Tony (Adam Kotz), to whom his elders refer laughingly as "the combustible curate," and who believes the church must actively intervene in the lives of its parishioners. If this stance helps his career, all the better.

But Tony is less than scrupulous in relation to his human responsibilities. He is unclear about how his needs as a man relate to his duties as a priest, and so he treats his lover Frances (Saskia Wickham) unfeelingly.

His attempt to help Stella produces a total fiasco. Before long Tony turns into a full-fledged zealot, and a dangerous and unsophisticated one at that. To Tony's way of thinking, God inflicts Lionel with misfortune because Lionel is wrong in opposing Tony. But Tony's own misfortune--the death of both of his parents--was God's method of helping him to find his way. Who would mistake this egocentric self-righteousness as true belief?

The Bishop (Richard Pasco) is similarly unbearable. When Lionel dares to oppose him, the Bishop, who is being dressed for a service in his fine robe and miter (big hat), angrily accuses Lionel of having "an appearance of superiority which is wholly unearned." It is quite clear that the Bishop, who calms himself by accepting a scepter from an underling, is quite sure that he has earned his appearance of superiority. But to whom this news would be shocking, I'm not sure.

On the large, largely empty stage at the Doolittle, lighting designer Mark Henderson (and Luc Batory for the Los Angeles production) make beautiful pictures in the highlighting of human flesh tones against the black background from which lone men and women step forward and struggle to make sense of God. But the production's visual centerpiece--a huge rectangular screen on which slides are projected--is quite ugly. The photos, suggesting an English garden, a church, a city street, look like the slide show a neighbor makes you sit through on his return from London.

The actors who play the good priests, the three wise men of the play, are all superb. Davies wonderfully mixes a personal humility with the essential arrogance of sarcasm. Scarborough's Streaky supplies the heart of the play and gives the evening's most winning performance. Michael Bryant, as a priest brought down by the insinuations of a sleazy journalist, is achingly human. The religious men who are more successful in their careers are less good at recognizing the complexity of accepting religion in an imperfect world. These performances are less interesting. As Frances, the nonbeliever who nevertheless talks to God, Wickham gives a technically unimpeachable but bloodless performance.

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