Love the Sinner
By Drew Pautz
Directed by Matthew Dunster
National Theatre, London
Good enough for God? Church attendance has been declining in Britain, and in the rest of Europe, for almost two generations, so a play about the irrelevance of God hardly touches a burning nerve. When Canadian-born playwright Drew Pautz chose this theme for Love the Sinner, mounted on the National’s tiny Cottesloe stage, most reviewers showed indifference. The play’s themes were called muddled, and as often happens, the artist was blamed for the critic’s refusal to think. Pautz has updated a respectable genre, the drama of ideas, which fostered another argument about God and human affairs, Shaw’s Saint Joan. Shaw could count upon solid religious conformity as a backstop for his secular ripostes. Today, the orthodoxy has swung so far in the other direction that Love the Sinner includes a major character whose attitude is “God? Are you kidding? Put that Bible down right now.”
The barb is directed at Michael, the straying hero of the play who sins in haste and spends every moment afterwards twisting in the coils of repentance. Before he falls prey to temptation, of the bisexual kind, we get a long opening scene in which a roomful of Anglican clerics tries to wrangle an agreement on gay clergy. True to the headlines, the white Western members are liberal while the two black Africans are fiercely opposed to any accommodation. This issue has been divisive, as we all know, and when conservative congregations want to peel off, as several have in the U.S., it’s to the Nigerian bishops that they turn for support. As written by Pautz, the wrangling is futile and droll, full of stuttering impotence on one side and stalwart determination on the other.
Asking an audience to sit through ecclesiastical debate is one thing, but I’m amazed they didn’t have to lock the doors when the second scene, set in a hotel room a day later, gives us a post-coital confrontation between Michael and a comely young African porter. Gay sex right under the African bishops’ noses. This blatant stab at irony is not what it seems, however. If you stick with it, Love the Sinner turns into an engrossing examination of one believer’s attempt to be good enough for God, with no support from his wife or the “culturally Christian” people around him, to use the adroit phrase one hears for lapsed believers who still can’t face being labeled atheists.
As played by the lean, worried Jonathan Cullen, Michael is a whirlwind of evasiveness. He is beside himself with guilt over his sexual peccadillo, afraid to meet his wife, Shelly, in the eye, upset that God has become worse than dead – forgotten. Her husband makes lame excuses for reading the Bible, but when he tells Shelly that it comforts him, she narrows her eyes. “Why do you need comforting?” she demands, as if this is another ploy to reject her and her domineering need to have a child. Shelly, played with vengeful astuteness by Charlotte Randle, is the one who wants comforting: she feels scorned and neglected, and Michael turns sniveling when he fobs their problems off on his search for God. “God?” she snorts incredulously, and then the worst occurs to her: “You’re not an evangelical, are you?”
But the worst hasn’t arrived yet. Joseph, the African one-night stand, shows up asking for help in seeking asylum. He throws rocks at the window to get someone’s attention, frightening the now-pregnant Shelly. When she interrogates Michael about who Joseph exactly is, he stares into space and trembles. “He’s a Fury,” Michael moans, with utmost conviction.
Our hero’s dread comes down to the question “Is God listening? Does He see me?” which has been worn to the nub by repetition. But religion can’t exist without giving a credible answer – neither can atheism, for that matter. In the setup of Love the Sinner, the Africans are unbothered by doubt. Having received Christ from English missionaries, they are impatient with today’s Western shilly-shallying. Joseph, it turns out, is no exception. A born-again evangelical, he gives a speech to the assembled Anglican clerics about his beliefs, and with glowing face he declares that God exists to provide the good things in life, a bargain that allows a true believer to demand anything and everything from the Almighty. This kind of literalism appalls the churchmen (“There, you see? Christianity without suffering. It’s terrible,” one moans). Here Pautz twists the knife. Joseph is complex: coy and hostile by turns, manipulative and shrewd, knowing how to play on Michael’s guilt, sexually carefree but scarred by the beatings he’s gotten for sleeping with men. As a representative of confirmed Christianity, he’s a piece of work. Michael’s suburban struggle to believe is weak tea by comparison, and his descent into humiliation continues piteously.
At his small business he replaces the usual photos on the shop floor (chesty pinups) with sun-rimmed clouds as a reminder of God. His workers rebel, and then Shelly barges in, all but accusing Michael of being gay. To prove himself, he strips to full frontal and jumps her, only to look down with dismay at his lack of arousal (at my performance his penis hadn’t quite read the script, but the show must go on). Joseph turns con man, forcing Michael to find shelter for him in the basement of the parish church, waiting on his every whim, at which point the bishop shows up to consecrate a new altar. The personified forces of faith and doubt meet head on.
When a thesis play works, the finale is intellectually exciting, and this one is. We are trapped by four points of view that cannot be reconciled. Michael, who only wants to do good, is reduced to groveling at Joseph’s feet like Mary Magdalene before Jesus. The bishop’s assistant, a corporate type, regards the mess with an African refugee as no-win for the church, publicity-wise. The bishop tries to be all things to all people, asking earnestly, “What can I do for you? What do you really want?” To which a gleeful Joseph, guying the system for all it’s worth, says, “I want to be bishop, like you!” (A nod must go to Fiston Barek in a debut performance that is roguishly sly but frightening in its implied rage.)
The triumph of this scene isn’t that it answers questions but that it skewers a complacent audience. Liberal or not, one squirms to see Michael enslaved by a Nigerian. At the same time Joseph’s unwavering faith puts self-indulgent agnosticism to shame, and the hijacking of the Anglican church by erstwhile lost children of God, as the missionaries condescendingly dubbed them, is a ripe example of hoist on one’s petard. I was reminded of Pascal’s Wager, which holds that one should act as if God exists, because if one chooses the wrong side of the bet and there is a God, the afterlife will turn into a very bad prize. This has always struck me as a totally inane idea, the basis of faith in name only.
Yet modern Christians of the ethical culture stripe have made a lazy version of the same wager: accept God because it’s the easiest way to get along. Cultural Christianity is given a royal roasting in Love the Sinner. I doubt anyone will easily erase the last image on stage, as Joseph, proud to belong among the elect, despite being a rent boy on the side, mounts the steps toward a stained-glass window to tell his story to the press, while Michael, knowing that the story will destroy what’s left of his life, crouches in a puddle on the basement floor. Turn about is rarely fair play, but it’s fairly unbeatable as a dramatic ploy.