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115

A highly offensive pamphlet has appeared around the Oxford University campus and there has been a grave infringement of the chapel’s safe space. A few of the student plays which I have already seen at this year’s Fringe, including “Fresher,” “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” and now “The Necessity of Atheism,” comment with varying degrees of politeness upon the NUS-approved “censorship” which is increasingly pervading university campuses. “‘Tis Pity” goes back to 1631 to locate an unflattering parallel, but with “The Necessity of Atheism” we need only go so far as 1811, when Percy Bysshe Shelley (Alexander Banks), then an undergraduate, had anonymously published his offending essay.

“The Necessity of Atheism,” (the pamphlet, that it) sits more in the noble English polemical tradition of winding people up than being a sincere theological effort. It is, of course, anachronistic to expect to encounter Richard Dawkins’ conclusions in the scepticism of David Hume and the juvenilia of Shelley. Hume was probably a Deist and Shelley an agnostic. Nonetheless the Oxford authorities still had to act and in this play they lumber into a crackdown. David Middleton plays Master Griffith, the unfussy university administrator who is leant on to expel Shelley, whilst Laura Williamson plays the visiting Lord Chancellor who is out for blood and guts.

We are at the Surgeons Hall. This play was written by Sean Lang in 2013 and it is today performed by Anglia Ruskin Creative. Lang comes from Cambridge, which presumably renders that line about modern riot and debauchery being “almost as bad as Cambridge” an in-joke. There are no actual flaws in the play, but one might suspect that this is only because there is no room available for them to develop. It is a pamphlet rather than an epic poem.

It was an age of revolution and reaction, of big ideas and huger European wars. Far from executing prodigious philosophical leaps, though, this play will only wiggle its toes. A relaxed, apparently introductory scene on the rooftop of the college turns out to fill a third of the story. Shelley’s eventual dismissal from Oxford is likewise curt and unoperatic. The phantasmagoric dream sequence in the Master’s study is a pleasant surprise and a display of the cast’s power, but we are otherwise left with an impression of fat muscles which have not been stretched.

“The Necessity of Atheism” (the play, that is) had conceivably set out to cut safe-spacers down to size, but perhaps the production has become distracted from this mission somewhere along the road since 2013. Indeed, it seems to have become distracted principally by Brexit. Banks’ Shelley is recognisably a Boris, a charmingly bored and dopey intellectual scoundrel. Through the fug of his boyish charm, he has the same prosaic morality which always finds it easiest to be dishonest. Shelley incites the wrath of the establishment, but he still remains an ornament of the establishment. No genuine risk arises from his expulsion because his family has money. His servants will do all the “packing,” so even this is not an inconvenience. There is a feelgood ending, in which Shelley simply decides that after his Br-Ox-it, he is free and there is nothing to worry about. Social revolution would require more than this decadence to get any purchase.

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