“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.