Jonathan Moore has created a fascinating play on the last subject you’d think would be interesting.
The very last thing to clear in my post-Brighton backlog is Inigo, one of the plays I saw in London on my way home to Durham. I could easily have ended up giving this one a miss, and I probably would have done if someone had told me it was all about Ignatius of Loyola, a religious figure famed for being a Jesuit. It probably doesn’t help that I’m one of these people who thinks the story that starts with a virgin giving birth to a magic baby is mostly bollocks, but I’ve seen plenty of plays where I’ve been bored to tears watching profound discussions of the finer points of religious philosophies.
And yet, writer/director Jonathan Moore has created a fascinating play about a fascinating power-struggle that once took place over Europe. A portrayal of a dangerous world where crossing the powers that be had deadly consequences. The same powerful few who use religion as a pretext for lives of luxury and importance. And here’s the unexpected bonus: even though the play sympathetically follows a devout follower of his religious convictions (later made a saint), this play is just an enthralling if you’re a complete atheist.
Moore’s play is very much a biopic following the life of Íñigo López de Loyola (played by Faye Bakhsh). It begins with his early life, with Íñigo a hot-headed nobleman, socialising and duelling and womanising his life away. Untio one day Íñigo fights one battle too many. Having come off worse for wear in a skirmish with a cannonball, he spends months bed-ridden, and during this convalescence at his brother’s home, his lonely devoutly-Christian wife leaves him with religious texts to pass the time. Maybe out of boredom, or maybe just to please her, Íñigo relents and gives them a read – and it changes everything. So inspired is he with the stories of Jesus’s tolerance, humbleness and selflessness, Íñigo suddenly becomes Jesus’s most loyal follower, turning his back on his old live, giving away his fortune, and devoting this life to helping others.
But there is a problem with this. Gone are the tolerant humble selfless beginnings of the church Jesus founded. Fifteen centuries later, it’s a powerful authoritarian entity where the Spanish Inquisition is not a classic Python sketch but a terrifying group that can have you killed for heresy. When Íñigo decides to write his own texts going back to the teaching of Jesus, and they prove to be popular, some in the Inquisition see him as a threat – and the irony that it’s not too different to how Jesus was treated is lost on them. But with Íñigo not having the same get-out clause available to Jesus had in the event of politically-motivated execution, he had only his words to protect him. Luckily for him, Íñigo survives thanks is to his amazing silver tongue and dodging one trumped-up charge after another from Inquisitor after inquisitor.
It’s the parallels with story of Jesus that’s the most fascinating. As well as the persecution Jesus and Íñigo shared for the crime of suggesting we should all be nice to each other, there’s the parallels of the followings they built up. Even if you don’t believe any of this God stuff, what we do know is that a movement called Christianity came out of nowhere in the first century – so inspiring that followers joined faster than they could be put down, until it eventually won over the empire who tried to crush it. That’s a similar story with Íñigo, but with this set in a world closer to our own, it’s an easier world to believe. Can we really believe that rich men who had everything would willingly give it all up to have nothing – nothing, that is, except the satisfaction of helping the poor? Jonathan Moore’s play makes it totally believable.
Really the only weakish bit of the play was the beginning. It would have been challenge whatever Moore had decided to do, but the biopic format of the play meant it started with quite a bit of Íñigo’s pre-conversion life as a wealthy womaniser. His early life is actually an interesting story in its own right, but squeezing this into the first 15 minutes or so felt like an unhappy compromise – not having time to get into any real depth, but instead creating a long introduction where not much happens that’s relevant to the later story. Not sure if there was a better way of doing this though – you can’t rewrite a real life to fit a play synopsis. Maybe it would have worked better to start the story with Íñigo’s convalescence and conversion, maybe it wouldn’t.
But that is a very minor issue, and it is well worth sitting patiently through the slow beginning, because once the story begins, it’s fascinating – and all the more remarkable that it’s on the last subject you’d expect to be fascinating. It’s been very heavily praised amonst the society of Jesuits, but Inigo is worthy of a far wider audience. It’s a highly thought-provoking play for anyone of any religion or none. It’s the second run in two years at London, and great that I caught it – now can you bring this up north please?