Bizarre and strangely surreal, it's clear to see why John Whiting's play has rarely been revived despite its winning the Festival of Britain competition of 1951. Densely poetic and heavily laden with symbolism, its essence seems to be a reactionary stance against random violence, its characters not so much developed beings as the mouthpiece for various points of view.
Set in 1950, it's 25th January and poet Paul Southman is celebrating his 83rd birthday in the home he shares with grand-daughter Stella and her husband Charles. Self-exiled from literary society and deeply suspicious of the neighbouring villagers, Southman, the eponymous 'saint', represents one who has voluntarily renounced the corrupting influences of society, intent on discovering some eternal truth. The date is particular, commemorating the accepted date of St Paul's conversion. Southman is awaiting the visit of one Robert Procathren , a young man of letters who is to escort him to a dinner in his honour.But nothing goes as planned, the sudden arrival of three army deserters providing the catalyst that tips the balance and leads to tragedy as Procathren experiences a personal conversion diametrically opposed to that of St Paul, abandoning his pristine politeness for rampantly destructive behaviour.
It's a difficult, tantalising play that demands the most from its cast and generally they respond well to what often seems a darkly opaque text. Leonard Fenton is effective as the endearing, erratic Southman who swiftly retreats into madness and Ed Stoppard's Charles and Ben Warwick's Procathren each give of their best in their respective roles even if the latter's sudden descent into anarchy lacks dramatic conviction.
Perplexing, confusing...take your pick of epithets, this drama offers scope for all these and more; there are flashes here of real power but, like Southman's moments of lucidity, they seem fragmentary, the only discernible theme being the retreat from violence that tries to impose unity on a disordered world. Whiting himself said that "if we are normal human beings we live surrounded by terrors, clowns, dead loves and old fears" and in this weird play he represents a nightmarish kaleidoscope of all these things intermeshed.
Photos by Robert Day
(top photo: Chris Porter & James Lloyd Pegg / lower photo:David Gooderson)