THE SANCTUARY LAMP – A Director’s Perspective Jacob Murray is an Associate Director at the Royal Exchange Theatre. His productions at the Royal Exchange include THE DEAD WAIT and SHOOT THE CROW. Next year Jacob will be directing GREAT EXPECTATIONS in the Royal Exchange Module. THE SANCTUARY LAMP is one of the most challenging and exciting plays I have ever directed. The first days of rehearsals are only a week away and I am filled with feelings of euphoria and absolute fear. Euphoria because it’s a play I have wanted to do for a long time by a writer called Tom Murphy who I have always loved and fear because it is one of the most difficult pieces of work I have ever had to work on. I first read THE SANCTUARY LAMP about 18 months ago when we were looking for plays for the secound year of work in The Studio. Our guidelines so far for selecting plays in the Studio have centred on the logistical difficulties of presenting work in a small space. Each play we have so far selected has had to be small scale in terms of staging it but also vast in terms of the emotional landscape of the characters. Each play has also had to break new ground for the theatre and perhaps take the audience into worlds and experiences they would not otherwise encounter. THE SANCTUARY LAMP fitted the bill perfectly: four actors in a confined space (a half deserted church) but in the drama of those four characters lies a universe of thoughts and feeling which touches upon the deepest and most extraordinary hopes, ideas and fears of the human race. A tall order indeed for any Director. On first reading the play I think I only understood about 50% about what was going on but in that 50% I found more to excite and inspire me than in most of the modern plays I have ever read. THE SANCTUARY LAMP deals with four characters drawn to a rundown Catholic Church because of their own individual searches for meaning, safety, maybe simply “home”. Of the four only one actually is Catholic, the sad, noble Monsignor who tends the building. Of the others, Harry is a Jewish ex – Circus strongman, Maudie, is a drifting young girl with very little knowledge of any religion and the last person Francisco, is an atheist who hates everything the Church stands for. Needless to say they are all are at a point in their lives at which everything they have lived for no longer answers their needs. They are desperate and over the long night of the play they find together some kind of catharsis which enables them to put their pasts behind them and move on. Whether that catharsis is through God or their own inner resources (perhaps a mixture of both) Tom Murphy lets the audience decide. Whatever the case, the play is a beautifully intimate and deeply moving piece of writing, which also manages to be wildly and unexpectedly funny just as you think it is slipping into a world of sadness and despair. Such a play needs a special company and a special design team. Diane Seymour, who has designed the set and will be working on the costumes, has created a beautiful world in the studio space, using the architecture of the building to evoke a sense of this dilapidated but rather haunting church somewhere in a city in the north of England. The play calls for a stage set which conveys the forgotten nature of the church, as if the playwright is saying that the real spirit of two thousand years of Christianity is not found in a Cathedral or an Abbey but in the smallest, least flamboyant houses of worship. The damage caused to nature by the Church becomes a metaphor for the tail end of two thousand years of European culture. Murphy’s characters gather beneath the sanctuary lamp at a time in human history when Christianity is no longer the driving force in western culture. Di Seymour’s design is a model of how to create something deeply moving with a minimum of means. Together she and I visited several churches in and around Manchester for inspiration. Ultimately we drew upon a church drawn from our own imagination. The set has to create the atmosphere of a dying spiritually which nonetheless still had something to offer to those who wanted to reach out for it. Not every church in Manchester does this. The final design is as much about our inner feelings about the play as it is an amalgam of all the churches we visited. As for the cast I am delighted to say that I feel that I have managed to find one of the most extraordinary casts I have ever worked with. The play calls for actors who are willing to play characters who are battered and bruised, what Nietzsche calls “the botched and bungled”. All four characters are possessed of enormous humanity but at the same time are the kinds of people who most of us would pass everyday on the street without noticing. They are people who have fallen through the net in society who have not been able to fit in the ordinary world and in their extremity have found themselves in this church. Terence Wilton who is playing Harry, is an actor I have worked with before. Highly professional and dedicated to his work, in the brief discussions I have had with him he seems fired by his role in a way, which is contagious in its enthusiasm. Declan Conlon one of Ireland’s leading young actors playing Francisco, is an actor of enormous intensity and power and will be perfect as this most driven and tormented of figures. Rachel Brogan who is playing Maudie is a very exciting young actress who gave a stunning audition at which she seemed to have a really intuitive grasp on where the character was coming from emotionally and spiritually. Another talented actor, John Watts is playing the role of the Monsignor. John was in the first play I directed professionally ten years and will bring enormous sensitivity and humanity to the role. It is an exciting time for a director! A challenging, wonderfully moving play which speaks of that moment we have all been at, at some point in our lives, the moment when the bottom falls out of our world and we are only with our inner selves and yet which offers a glimmer of hope that we can overcome even the worst extremities of existence and moving towards the light again with a great cast, the chance to work with a major writer for the theatre, Tom Murphy, who will be present during rehearsals and a superb design team. I can only hope that I will rise to the occasion and do the play justice! In a few weeks time we will find out.