Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Opened 13 November, 2009


Nigel Dennis’s “history of religion in three acts” (1957) may seem both more urgently relevant in an age of increasing rather than diminishing religious conflicts and also more in tune with one ascendant viewpoint, as advertisements proclaiming the probable non-existence of God appear on the sides of London buses. In the event, though, it seems dated in more than its narrative framework, and ultimately takes the very same kind of position it seeks to denounce.
The first act sees a British colonial district administrator (Philip York) in Africa, on discovering that his cherished dam project is believed to have drowned the local river god, set out with his wife and aide (Amanda Royle and Duncan Wisbey) to design a decent, moral and rational religion in its stead. The first nod to absurdity is naming the new god after the noise of the neighbouring cows. In this phase, as the trio hold meetings to decide what their god will be like, the play seems a very English satire; it is as if Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard had come from East Grinstead instead of moving to it. Sam Walters’ direction catches the sardonic note of the pseudo-Wildean epigrams that pepper the act, such as “Though educated people will believe in anything, atheists need to be convinced.”
However, after the interval, satire becomes polemic. In Act Two the religion is in bloodthirsty expansionist mode: the principal trio have come to believe in their own creation, the rattan furniture of Tim Meacock’s set has become a papal throne and a sacrificial altar, and Christopher Staines as a visiting lawyer is simply a mouthpiece for authorial statements, as if Christopher Hitchens had taken the stage. Act Three sees the church institutionalised, the elders’ zeal softened but with a new generation (Staines again) showing signs of fervour and inflexibility that augur ill for the future. The play as a whole succumbs to the problem that, just as there is no hard evidence for the existence of any God, so there is likewise none for the non-existence, and loud and forceful counter-assertion becomes the order of the day. As for the claim that the Earth would have been a finer place without religion to sanction various atrocities through the ages, what is that but an article of faith in another, better world?
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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