Sunday, 10 September 2017

Review Doubt, A Parable


A fraught adversarial situation between nun and priest within a New York Catholic school during a time of social change fully engages Peter Barker. 

Doubt, A Parable
by John Patrick Shanley 

Truth And Consequences
http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

Sister Aloysius Beavier is the sternly upright conservative headmistress of a New York Roman Catholic school in 1964 which has just accepted its first black pupil from the working class population of the Bronx.

Now purely circumstantial evidence leads her  to suspect a young, progressive priest with an otherwise attractive personality, Father Brendan O'Flynn, may be guilty of molesting the new boy.

John Patrick Shanley's play tackles the nature of faith in oneself as well as in others and in self-policing, hierarchical institutions.

Doubt swirls around the allegations, but Sister Aloysius, the principal of a school attached to the local Catholic Church, does not allow herself to entertain any uncertainty.

She sets out to prove his guilt, not so much Miss Marple as a Miss Wimple who has already drawn her conclusions and now is working backwards to find the proof.

She's a small but steely and tenacious figure against the taller frame of the urbane Father Flynn, marking the division between the two not only in personality but in a hierachy.

For the priest always outranks the nun and the protocols for handling discomforting complaints easily turn into a dead end process and a means of suppression.

Both a melodrama and a witty thriller mystery, writer John Patrick Shanley's 2005 play therefore pits the austere female principal, played by Stella Gonet, against Jonathan Chamber's charismatic priest.

Doubt is a four-hander play with three women and one man structured around a series of duologue scenes punctuated by monologues, among which are sermons delivered to a congregation.

It's a tense 90 minutes revealing unexpected but all-too-human complications and the atmosphere of an era - the USA's first Catholic president John F Kennedy had just been assassinated.

Even the title Doubt, A Parable has an ironic 21st century ambivalent edge - for when was a parable ever uncertain? -  as nun and priest battle it out verbally and manoeuvre on the stained glass floor under the chandelier of PJ McEvoy's ecclesiastical set design.

Directed by Ché Walker, there are terrific performances from the whole cast which also includes Clare Latham as the idealistic, enthusiastic young teacher Sister James and Jo Martin's mother of the alleged victim who has her own understandable reasons for not making waves. 

Doubt is a tautly constructed play where no character has the monopoly on probity and the Catholic Church's powerful reach brings unexpected but logical reactions when religion becomes a team game.

This is highlighted in a compelling scene between Sister Aloysius and the mother of the allegedly abused boy who, focussed on a better life for her son, is willing to accept some risk as long as the boy benefits.

However, this is a production that falls at the very last hurdle. Instead of leaving the question of the priest's guilt or innocence open, it seems to interpret a final ruse by the nun followed by the priest conceding to her as an indication there is no room for doubt.

The actors play this as a cut-and-dry situation and this ending jars, given the complexities of the situation presented beforehand. Nevertheless for everything else in a demanding, pacey and thought provoking play, it's a green light. 

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