Writer: Martin Foreman
Director: Martin Foreman
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright
Martin Foreman has written and directed two short one-man plays (combined they come in at under two hours with an interval), each of which stands alone as a distinct and intriguing story, and both of which share some weighty themes. Since the characters themselves are deeply religious men, their preoccupations — the eternal conflict between body and soul, the existence of God, their spiritual struggle, and so on — naturally revolve around religion. Equally naturally, there’s little room for humour, but the performances of Christopher Annus (Now We Are Pope) and especially of Christopher Peacock (Angel) are for the most part engaging.
A Catholic priest seeking sexual favours on the sly is not the kind of character anyone — atheist or believer — is likely to warm to, and so it’s a surprise when the unnamed priest in Angel generates in us more than a grain of sympathy for his predicament. The play begins with him praying to a saccharine image of the Virgin Mary, the ancient superstition interrupted by a very modern doorbell. Michael enters, and out pour the priest’s deepest secrets: his early, unsatiated longing for women, his later lusts for young men. Michael remains unseen throughout, an invisible presence, contributing nothing but what is supplied by the priest’s imagination. He might as well be the god the older man spends so much time praying to.
One moment the priest is dreamily recalling the body of the first naked man he embraced (including evocative details such as the “bulk of his thighs”), the next he is trying out Pascal’s Wager on Michael, who points out that this is really proof of man’s despair, not of God’s existence. Fear of God is no proof that God exists, since we can fear that which isn’t there. No wonder the priest is becoming spiritually exhausted, as he reflects upon the choice between men and God, between the promise of ecstasy tomorrow or fulfilment today.
Where Angel is based on a real priest the playwright met thirty years ago, Now We Are Pope is about Frederick Rolfe (1860—1913), an Englishman “who spent his life seeking the Divine Friend but was never happier than when making enemies” — or trying to entice handsome young men into his room at the Palazzo Marcello in Venice. Among his many achievements was a novel, Hadrian VII, about an Englishman long denied the priesthood who is suddenly elected pope.
The programme note on Rolfe also describes him as “a difficult man” and that is the part of his character that unfortunately dominates. He’s a good complainer, with a long list of enemies, who have stolen his paintings, his writings, all his best ideas. He no longer trusts anyone. On the wall of his room is the iconic image of Saint Sebastian, tied to a tree, pierced by arrows. This provides the one moment of light relief as he recalls taking photos of the boys he was tutoring in Scotland, dressed (or rather undressed) as Sebastian. He’s still bitter that he was sacked, despite protesting to their mother that the boys wore clean loincloths.
Both plays benefit from a serious script and the intimacy of the performance space. Angel is the stronger of the two, and while both characters raise plenty of universal human questions, neither pauses to consider whether the kind of devotion and worship they indulge in is in itself a good thing. That, of course, is in the nature of obsession, which is perhaps the overarching theme of the evening.
Runs until 23rd March