Review: Love the Sinner, National Theatre

“It’s a bit niche isn’t it Michael…”

Love the Sinner is a world premiere of a play by Drew Pautz, slotting into the Cottesloe at the National Theatre. The play looks at a number of the key moral challenges facing the Christian church, starting off at a conference of international bishops somewhere in Africa trying to reach consensus on how Christianity has to come to deal with homosexuality in the modern world. We then see one of the volunteers at the meeting, Michael, after a brief sexual encounter with one of the African porters and follow him as he returns to his closeted lifestyle back in the UK and battles his own personal demons and the challenges that his faith poses in an evermore secular world.

Whilst Love the Sinner may look at some of these moral challenges, it doesn’t attempt to address any of them to any depth to quite frustrating effect. The opening scene concerns a sequestered group of bishops from different countries trying to come to agreement over the Church’s position on homosexuality and how to deal with same-sex relationships. The issues are bounded about for a bit with the African side defending their homophobic intolerance in the face of the pleas of the more liberal Western clerics, but then once the scene ends, the topic is dropped without resolution.

Later we move to the English home of Michael and his wife Shelley where, after a bizarre conversation about ethical ways of getting rid of an infestation of squirrels in their attic, we discover their problems in conceiving a much desired (by Shelley at least) child. The scene is then set for a debate about the religious ethics of using IVF treatment to get pregnant which again happens quickly, without resolution of the issues or any further discussion of how the final decision made was reconciled with Michael’s faith.

This broad brush approach appears to aiming for the epic but just results in barely scratching the surface on almost all of the topics thereby lending a quite superficial, disjointed air to proceedings. The episodic format in itself is not so problematic; it’s just that the episodes are too unrelated. By the time Joseph reappears and his relationship with Michael is finally revisited, too much other stuff has happened and I’d lost interest to be honest.

There are some nice touches: most of the scenes have a knock at the door towards the end; the set is most ingeniously flexible, bleached pine panels being reconfigured to a range of different locations all convincingly mounted and I liked the vertical blinds used as a curtain to cover the changes. The acting is as strong as one would expect from the National Theatre: Charlotte Randle is superb as the tightly-coiled, red-shoe-wearing wife, rightly suspicious of her husband’s behaviour; Ian Redford’s bumptious Archbishop, ever the diplomat amongst his warring bishops, is smoothly convincing; Scott Handy and Nancy Crane also turned in nice performances. As the central closeted Michael, Jonathan Cullen has a lot of awkward scenes to pull off and disparate strands to pull together: his performance is good but I fear the task is one just too hard to accomplish, so disjointed is the material.

Sometimes seeing early previews bring their own special kind of delight: Love Never Dies was beautifully enhanced by the set grinding to a halt during the prologue and Andrew Lloyd-Webber running thunderously past me and the first outing of Love the Sinner saw a great moment when a giant picture fell off one of its nails in the wall and swung down precariously and extremely loudly and eventually hung by one corner for the rest of the scene. Randle and Cullen did extremely well in not letting this distract them, especially as it happened just before their rather exposing love scene, with hitherto unseen levels of nudity (by me at least) at the National Theatre.

It is sometimes hard to make a judgement on a play that is having its first ever showing, the first preview of a world premiere may not be fully representative of what will actually come to pass by opening night, but I do feel that Love the Sinner is far too ambitious in its scope. It’s a good production for sure and acted well, but the scenes are considerably overlong and in hitting so many hot-topic buttons; faith and homosexuality, ethics around IVF, overt expressions of faith in the workplace, Western attitudes to the opinions of the developing world, but failing to treat them with sufficient depth, Pautz leaves us unsatisfied on multiple levels.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £1.50 (it’s as basic a programme as I have ever seen from the NT, just cast list and bios)
Note: full frontal male nudity and partial female nudity

7 thoughts on “Review: Love the Sinner, National Theatre

  1. I found it really unsatisfactory. Despite the passionate performances of the actors I did not care about any of the characters, and , despite a promising first scene, I thought that the treatment of the 'issues' completely lacked depth or coherence. The dialogue, in an attempt to sound 'natural' is at times extraordinarily tedious and pointless. I have a connection with various aspects of the subject matter of this play , but I very much regret that it left me bored and irritated. David Hare has no competition from this play.

  2. No insight, no depth, entirely superficial treatment of the major issues it raises, this is one of the worst things I've ever seen at the National. People were laughing out loud in all the wrong places, one to avoid definitely

  3. Rather dismayed by the dismissive nature of the previous two commenteers. A play as ambitious as this in it's thematic scope, presented by a pretty fresh playwright, is bound to stumble at some of the hurdles, and occasionally frustrate an audience in the process. However, I think Mr Pautz and his skilled collaborators both on stage and backstage have created a highly entertaining and happily surprising night at the theatre. Ian noted some of the 'nice' touches, but there is very refreshing invention on view everywhere. The opening 'committee' scene descends into a brilliant, awkward, farcical but for me highly charged sequence where all (and there are many!)the characters bar one 'interloper' are required, without clumsy contrivance, to play the scene as if blindfold, a conceit which deftly, almost magically exposes the manifold complexities, contradictions and hypocrisies intrinsic in any rarefied discussion of religious faith and it's relationship to race, culture, class and sexuality. The audience is then 'plunge-bathed' into the grubby 'enactment' of the issues in committee discussion, by the two 'least likely' players from the first scene. This surprise is joy in itself but what follows is a vivid and compelling two hander which avoids feeling like th 'ordinary life enactment of the issues' at all and instead is a surprising dance of mutual affection, suspicion, gratitude, guilt, entitlement and resentment that is full of human truth.

    I could go on scene by scene, there are certainly things awry here but things aplenty to crow about.

    This was a first preview night that I saw, surely a chance for the dramatist to fail in safety, with opportunity now to shift and tweak and address problems that emerge under the harsh gaze of a first audience, but there is so much to recommend this play, not least the great discussion it inspired in me and my 'date' afterwards in search of the things that were missing, a discussion that swiftly wandered from the formal triumps and failures of the piece into a broader discussion of the issues the play raises.

    A uniformly skilled cast, with two or three stand-out performances, often natural, sometimes heightened but good lots of good judgement on show rather than lucky accident or clumsy choice. Beautiful, simple, unobtrusive and eloquent design, clever choices of costume too was helpful to differentiate cast often doubling up for characters.

    Like I say, a great night at the theatre. Go see!

  4. Hmm, not sure what happened with that comment there.

    I'm not sure it's fair to dismiss the dismissiveness of the previous comments, and to some extent the review (which is remarkably fair, Ian). This is a play that practically delights in its own dismissiveness, raising up issues like IVF for a brief moment, before casting them aside without any consideration. I saw this play on press night and previews don't seem to have done much to help. The problem isn't with the cast (for the most part) or the direction or design, but with the script itself. I'm afraid I'm also on the "avoid" side of things.

  5. The beauty of opinions is that we can all have our own! But I do tend to side with Orion Hunt in disagreeing with anonymous #3: 'dismissiveness' is exactly the right word for the way in which so many of these topics are touched upon and then discarded without further consideration. As for the broader themes of the play, I'm not sure I came away with any sense of what the playwright was trying to achieve overall.
    Still, it has had better reviews in the press than I might have expected so people can go along make their own minds up if they're so inclined.

  6. Okay – i concede on the first 'commenteer' – but…..

    'No insight, no depth, entirely superficial treatment of the major issues it raises, this is one of the worst things I've ever seen at the National. People were laughing out loud in all the wrong places, one to avoid definitely'

    ……is there a better adjective than dismissive? It is opinion, granted, but with such broad strokes of reductive vitriol, any 'insight or depth' in the analytic mind of that critic is invisible to this reader. One for me to avoid in the future definitely.


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