Mick Gordon and AC Grayling’s Grace could be a “difficult” play. The plot’s summary on Timeout is not the most inviting: “A crusading atheist shaken by her son’s decision to become a priest”. Considering this is not a comedy by Bernard Shaw, the idea of highbrow lecturing did cross my mind – but who can resist the opportunity of seeing Lynn Redgrave? Fortunately, I was wrong. Grace is one of those plays that propose a discussion on serious relevant themes without giving too much of a didactic impression, although it runs dangerously close. Grace’s saving graces (sorry for the jeu de mots) are the brilliant dialogues, multidimensional characters and the playwright’s acute sense of timing, especially in what regards the needs of contrasting intellectual discussion with lighter situations. In any case, I would be lying that this is not one of those texts that require great acting otherwise they simply do not work. Therefore, I feel obliged to say that the excellent cast gathered here is the play’s main feature. I would have gladly read Grace, but I need the likes of Redgrave to see it in the theatre.
One of the main challenges in staging a play such as this is to create emotional involvement in philosophical or political arguments and here you find them immerse in family relationship, what makes everything far more visceral than one could expect – and that redeems the play of cold braininess. In the title role, Lynn Redgrave is literally a force of nature whose campaign against what she calls an ignoble and irresponsible conviction about unproven things that only leads to violence (i.e., religion) is tested by the news that her only son, a lawyer who couldn’t find piece of mind in his job, would become an Episcopalian priest. In his words, there is no war between atheism and religion, since atheism is restricted to intellectual milieus, while religion is a central part of everyone’s life. Therefore, it should be important to combat “bad religion” with “good religion”. But the mother takes it personally and, as much as religion, love can make people angry – and that is what you see here. It is a brilliant storyline and the bright dialogues are conducted in such an emotional level that it is impossible to resist. Redgrave does not need eulogizing – she is one of the greatest theatre actresses in the world – but, if you have not seen her before, you would be impressed by the intensity of her presence. She is on stage during the whole play, even in the scenes in which she doesn’t take part and it is difficult not to turn your eyes from the actors delivering their lines to see what is her reaction to them. When an actor is intense as that, one might always fear that there might be no room for growing tension, but she seems to have inexhaustible reserves and produces a spine-chilling climax to the play.
Although Redgrave is probably the shining feature in this staging, she does not overwhelm it and has partners to her level here. As Grace’s husband, Tony, Philip Goodwin offers genuine art qui cache l’art in an utterly likable performance. The role of Tom, Grace’s son, is a challenge to any young actor and Oscar Isaac succeeds in keeping up in his intense dialogues with such formidable bêtes de scène. He is certainly a most talented actor. K.K. Moggie has the ungrateful task of playing the secondary role that gains momentum just before the end of the play. She is a skilled actress and achieves that, but one can see how difficult the proceedings are.
Director Joseph Hardy wisely highlights the actors’ performances and eschews any kind of gimmick. The scenery is very simple and the astute use of lighting helps the audience to fly back and forth from the different moments in time portrayed by the text. I particularly like the idea of keeping in scene actors who are not included in the scene for dramatic purposes.