Finborough Theatre, London – until 7 June 2016
THE LAST BLASPHEMY TRIAL..AND ECHOES FOR TODAY
It is a thousand pities that John Osborne is predominantly famous for the spitting spoilt-brat misogyny of Jimmy Porter in Look Back In Anger. Just about everything else Osborne wrote is better: notably Luther, to which this hour-long evocation is closely related. It deals with England’s last blasphemy trial , in 1842, and is studded with lines so ringingly topical in this age of “hate speech” law and “Prevent” rules that I would beg young lawyers – and dear God, lawmakers – to have them up on the wall – “I am under no contract to think as you do” says the victim, and ”What is the morality of a law which prohibits the free publication of an opinion?”. And “There is no magic in words, neither yours nor mine”.
Holyoake, a young schoolmaster of social-reformist views, walks between Bristol and Cheltenham, dusty, poor, prone to stammer, physically unimpressive. He delivers lectures in Mechanics’ Institutes and the like. So in Cheltenham one evening, after discoursing on the the national debt as a millstone on the poorest and on the disproportionate public money spent on clergy and churches, he is asked about our ‘duty to God” . He replies that he doesn’t believe in a deity, and if he did would put him on half-pay like soldiers “in our present distress”.
Down comes the establishment fist, prompted by a local newspaper (come on Cheltenham Festival – buy this play for the Lit Fest! I dare you!). His trial and imprisonment, lice and humiliation and barracking by sententious clergy follow. The rhetoric is tremendous: some from the prosecutors – socialism as “diabolism”, much about the perils of “disorder and confusion” and “wicked and advised bringing to disrepute” of religion among the people. From him there is still more, with the humanist affirmation that morality comes from mankind, not “2000 years of church”
Jamie Muscato gives Holyoake – intense, starveling, stubborn – his reported stammer, and in a fine performance holds it brilliantly just this side of intrusiveness, indeed using it to intensify the man’s fanatical, near- hysterical need to speak his truth at all costs. And there are costs. The hour begins and ends – crushingly – with the personal fallout of the activist’s stubborn determination. We had met him first visiting his wife, who he boarded out with her sister’s richer family who despise him, and are not looking after her or his infant daughter at all well. In the last prison scene she visits him to relate the child’s funeral, which he has insisted takes place priestless, with only a beadle and no “tinsel and angels” or “prayer and parade”. What this angry austerity, a prayerless farewell to her child, has cost the mother is evoked by Caroline Moroney with spare,frozen misery – “You may have your opinions, George, but I know now. This was not a manly thing to have done, and I can’t thank you for it”. Devastating.
In a play necessarily static and wordy, Jimmy Walters’ direction and Philip Lindley’s ingenious design create physical energy by setting it transverse and having the cast of six, in a sort of ballet of the benches, stylistically moving ingenious plain wooden barred platforms around to become a home, courtroom, meeting-house or jail. It works brilliantly, evoking a sense of a world whose every aspect conspires against poor Holyoake. And against the freedom of expressed religious opinion which we still have to defend today.
box office 0844 847 1652 finboroughtheatre.co.uk to 7 June