Based on the novel by William Golding
Adapted by Roger Spottiswoode
Directed by Gareth Machin
17th November 2012, 14.15
Gilbert / Father Adam – Scott Brooksbank
Dean Jocelin -Mark Meadows
Rachel/Lady Alison -Sarah Moyle
Goody -Dorothea Myer-Bennett
Chancellor -Jonathan Newth
Father Anselm -Jonathan Oliver
Roger Mason -Vincenzo Pellegrino
Pangall/Bishop Walter -Paul Slack
Jehan -Duncan Wisbey
Dean Jocelin (Mark Meadows)
William Golding was a schoolmaster in Salisbury, teaching with a view of the cathedral through his classroom window, and while the novel of The Spire (1964) is thinly-fictionalized, it refers to the building of Salisbury Cathedral, which for many years was the tallest building in Britain, and at some periods would have been the tallest building in the world. The view of the cathedral across the water meadows from the south was also voted the most beautiful view in England.
I have a natural aversion to the combination of medieval and ecclesiastical on stage, which dates from having to watch the school production of Murder in The Cathedral twice, then foolishly watching it again years later because it was something like fifth ticket in the theatre season free. Murder in The Cathedral is a play I never want to see again, and it doesn’t matter who’s in it. So The Spire didn’t leap out as promising. Even though I like Golding’s other novels, this was the only one I gave up on without finishing it. In this case, I decided to go on the basis of virtually all Salisbury Playhouse homegrown productions being extremely well-done.
They discover water in the foundations
The set, as ever with Salisbury productions, was magnificent. Salisbury specialize in elaborate one-offs: their production of Way Upstream last year could never have travelled because the set involved hacking the theatre roof apart. The Spire won’t tour because it really is localized to Salisbury (though Golding vaguely tried to disguise that) and good as this production is, it would be harder to sell in Salford or Sunderland. The set constantly changes as the cathedral is built, with three access points to the understage, pillars that move on and off, a room high in the building that’s wheeled on, and a skeleton tower that appears and disappears.
Historically, as the programme makes clear, Golding was inaccurate. The characters are fiction, and the building of the spire is compressed to 1325-1327, whereas it’s believed 1310-1330 was the actual timescale. The programme also informs us that Golding did not research medieval building techniques, he worked them out for himself. The novel was rich in metaphorical reference … a church is built on shaky foundations (as is Salisbury on its 4 feet of foundation), the spire’s phallic symbolism represents Dean Jocelin’s illicit desire for the red-haired beauty, Goody. That all carries over.
Jehan, the deaf and dumb sculptor, with Goody, the girl brought up in the cathedral
I have to say the shaky foundation of Salisbury Cathedral in reality, not metaphorically, worried me. We watched Ravi Shankar & Anoushka Shankar in concert right beneath that spire in one of those magic summer concerts in the cathedral. If I’d known about the dodgy foundations and the tons of stone resting on 650 year old beams above us, even Ravi and Anoushka’s magic spell might have been broken.
The play is in three acts with two intervals. The cast is excellent, with full marks to Mark Meadows in creating the tragedy of Dean Jocelin, the driving force behind the addition of tower and spire. It’s a study of how one man’s intense but narrow vision can force large numbers of people to go along with it. The tragedy is his growing realization of what he has done, the fall-out on others from what he’s done, and finally that the message from God was illusion.
There’s not a great deal of humour, but the best scene is when Lady Alison, the aunt of Dean Jocelin, explains that she obtained both the money she contributed for building, and the preferment of Jocelin, with his meteoric youthful rise from novice straight to cathedral dean, after a particularly satisfying afternoon’s shagging with the king. i.e. Dean Jocelin’s exalted position was not chosen by God, as he had thought, but was a post-intercourse gift from the satisfied monarch to his lusty aunty. Great acting by both Meadows and Sarah Moyles (as Lady Alison). The Dean gets gradually more bent with pain and deranged as the building proceeds … he has been scourging himself with a flail.
Paul Slack doubles as the Bishop and Pangall. Pangall is the limping cathedral cleaner who Jocelin betrothes to Goody, the girl abandoned as a baby and brought up in the cathedral. The hapless and impotent Pangall gets hounded out (possibly killed) by the construction workers, leaving Roger (the) Mason to have his wicked ways with Goody, the climax of which which Jocelin overhears.
Roger Mason and his barren wife, Rachel (doubling with Lady Alison by Sarah Moyle) have Yorkshire accents. It’s a good way of allowing Sarah Moyles to play two parts, but there was an important point. The army of construction workers travelled as a pack, and were outsiders in Wiltshire. There’s a lot of doubling of clerics and workers by the cast, and you can’t tell to the point where it’s a surprise to see how few were in the cast at the end.
So, a superb set, and excellent actors. Add the authenticity of the costumes revealing how limited the colour palette of 1325 must have been. Then add the sound track with the constant creaking, sighing and singing of the cathedral stones and beams under stress … the sounds really are such a major part of the play. The shifts of scene are covered by medieval choral singing too.
The play left me interested in the vast army of workers who would have descended to build something like this. Ninety masons and seventy carpenters (plus support, women and children) are mentioned in the script. The programme interview with the current head stonemason at Salisbury suggests there would have been a thousand people involved. In the play they’re Roger the Mason’s “army.” In a Brechtian nod to historical drama we get a series of rapid tableaux of the brawling “army” at the end of Act One, though a modern audience might describe it as flashes of freeze-frame. The army behave like an army too, bringing a trail of murder and rape with them.
Bishop Walter (Paul Slack)
Another piece of 14th century history was that the smooth talking Bishop turns up from Rome for a few days and disappears again, after criticizing the dean severely for his lack of attention to the congregation during building. These Bishops paid zero attention to congregations themselves. His silken robes contrast powerfully with the authentically coarse materials of everyone else’s garments. He brings a nail from the true cross, which the Dean takes without permission to secure the top beam of the spire. No problem, I’m sure the Bishop had loads, probably tons, more. As we walked out we could see the red light on the real spire to warn aircraft of its height, and joked that the nail was glowing away.
As with all historical plays, the issue is knowing the ending. We’d driven into Salisbury past the view of the very spire, so the drama of would it stay up or not, was non-existent. Golding had intended to fictionalize the location as Barchester, and at one time before completing the novel, was intending to end with it falling “now” in a present-day sequence. Writing Salisbury in concrete was part of the appeal, but also a loss of tension.
It’s a smooth production with an outstanding set and performances, and I was pleased I saw this production, but the intrinsic Golding material means this is not a play I’d really want to watch a second time if it were to come around again.
An excellent programme, with an essay on William Golding’s original concept by John Cox, and an interview with the Head Stonemason at Salisbury on the techniques (the spire was as cutting-edge as the technology of 1320 got anywhere). The cast photo outside the cathedral is good, and we’re spared the normal shots of actors in street clothes in a rehearsal room, that most productions seem to think interesting.