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The Road To Redemption
Funny and cutting, Tom Murphy’s The Sanctuary Lamp explores Ireland’s often contradictory relationship with faith.
Joe Jackson, 16 Jun 2005
When Gallowglass Theatre Company director Caroline Fitzgerald phoned Tom Murphy to chat about their new production of a play he had written in the mid ‘70s, Murphy said “don’t worry, it’s a piece of cake!”. This was quite a claim given that the play, The Sanctuary Lamp, was widely damned as an attack on the Catholic Church when it premiered in 1976.
However, Murphy wasn’t entirely wrong. The play is a piece of cake. It just depends on what kind of recipe you use.
The Sanctuary Lamp places three misfits in a church, where they drink consecrated wine, rail against organised religion yet somehow, in the end, stumble upon redemption. Murphy has described it as the ‘campfire in the distance, the candle in the window and the proof of hope in man’ and that, too, is how Caroline Fitzgerald sees the work.
“But then this play was written in, I think, 1973 when he was living in London and I think an awful lot of that part of his life comes into it” she says, “I had never seen it or read it before deciding to direct it for Gallowglass. But certainly these people meet in the church and they find, between themselves, some kind of forgiveness and redemption for their lives, which cross paths.
“And the point is that they have found all this without organised religion. Yet even though it is a very spiritual play, in 1976 it caused great controversy because these people rail against the Catholic Church and the Liturgy.
Fitzgerald believes that the almost exclusive focus, today, on the subject of clerical abuse has – pivotal though it is – tended to distract from a deeper, broader consideration of the church’s place in a (so-called) post-religious age.
“Well this play was, as I say, written before what we call the post-religious age but it was a brave play in that sense and did raise issues that many people will still have to confront within themselves,” says Fitzgerald. “And we are getting really strong responses wherever we tour. Fittingly enough we opened in the Parochial Hall in Clonmel and we were there a week before moving on to Limerick. But after one of the first shows a man came over to me and said something like “a lot of that was shocking, but it didn’t seem so bad because the play is so funny!
“And he probably was referring to ‘shocking things’ like the characters drinking the Holy Wine in the Church! Either way the play, clearly, provoked that man! And still is provocative, I believe.”
Murphy’s deliciously dark sense of humour is one of the play’s chief attractions, Fitzgerald believes.
“To me one definition of a good play is one that makes you think and laugh at the same time” she says.
The Sanctuary Lamp stars Frank Kelly, Douglas McFerran, David Gorry and Elaine O’Dea.
The Sanctuary Lamp runs until June 18 at the Belltable in Cork and then moves on top the Wexford Arts Centre from 22-24 June and will then be performed at no less than 15 venues throughout Ireland. See local press for details.