"Anti religious drama offering redemption"
by Diane Samuels for remotegoat on 22/03/10

When Tom Murphy's "The Sanctuary Lamp" was first produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in the mid 1970's it caused a stir. The inflammatory first scene in which a juggler sacked from a circus interrupts the Monsignor's sermon from the pulpit with diatribe at the Catholic church has since been omitted and the Arcola's production, directed with intense subtlety by Murphy, begins with the shadow of a teenage girl emerging briefly from behind the impressive stone pillars that help to transform the theatre into a church. Into this hallowed and muted place ventures an ex-circus strong man who is then discovered by the Monsignor who hires him on the spot to be clerk and caretaker. The scene that follows sets the tone for the play as the strong man, Harry, delivers an extended monologue about life, mortality and god to the sanctuary lamp whose candle he must replace regularly to ensure that its flame burns eternal. In this version the juggler does not show up until the end of act one, after Harry has become acquainted with the hiding girl, Maudie, who, it emerges, has lost an illegitimate baby. Harry himself still grieves for his own lost teenage daughter. It is these three irreligious refugees seeking sanctuary and regarding the confessional box only as a potential bed whose powerful encounter forms the heart of the play's climax.

The long speeches and exploring questions about the nature of the divine, guilt, shame and loss that are explored with such finesse and depth of feeling by Robert O'Mahoney as Harry, Kate Brennan as Maudie and Declan Conlon as Francisco the juggler, might not be to everyone's taste. The play is stark and unrelenting as it vents and probes and to those not fascinated by religious and spiritual exploration it might feel like sitting through an unrelenting religious service. Still, the vision and courage of the writing has a strength of purpose that cannot be denied and the play ends with the flame still burning and the promise of some kind of hope.

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