theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Certainty can be a dangerous thing. Think of all those people you know who have never had any doubt they are right. And then think of the damage they can do.
Mind you, theatre critics aren’t supposed to have doubt. We’re supposed to be so sure, it should never cross our minds to question our judgements. That’s what being a critic is supposed to be all about.
So there’s a kind of delicious paradox to watching John Patrick Shanley’s ‘parable’ on the nature of certainty and doubt. Set in a New York convent school circa 1960s, post-Kennedy assassination, it asks us to take sides on an issue in which doubt comes to be seen as both a form of turning a blind eye – collusion – and, on the other hand, adopting a more humanist, compassionate approach. Which side might you come down on?
In the first instance, Shanley’s Doubt comes lauded from the other side of the pond having hoovered up four Tony awards and a Pulitzer when it was presented on Broadway in 2005. Such was the febrile political atmosphere at the time – prior to George W Bush’s second Presidential victory – all kinds of coded political messages seem to have been spotted by American critics who read Shanley’s religiously-decked tale as a thinly disguised veneer for having a go at Bush’s moral and political certainties.
Well, here it is now, docked within British waters – and what are we to make of it? Are we to take it at face value or ascribe some wider, hidden British political meanings to it?
The situation itself is a simple but far from straightforward one. A priest attached to the convent school is suspected of having carried on an inappropriate relationship with one of the pupils, 12-year-old Donald Muller. How does this suspicion come about? Sister James (Marcella Plunkett), a young, liberal-leaning nun, sees him coming out of the rectory one day having entered alone with Father Flynn. Something about the way he ‘looked’ and the fact she thinks she smelt alcohol on his breath raises her suspicions.
For Sister Aloysius, a Mother Superior for whom satisfaction ‘is a vice’, innocence ‘a form of laziness’ and the ballpoint pen a sure sign of society’s spiritual collapse, Sister James’s suspicion confirms what she has thought for some time: there is something not to be trusted about Father Flynn. His nails are too long, for one thing. She determines she will get him out. Wrong-doing, she declares, must be confronted.
So far so predictable. Put actors into habits, give them some crisp aphorisms (they tumble out of Sister Aloysius faster than you can say Papal encyclical) and you can hardly fail. Remember Mary O’Malley’s Once a Catholic?
Sister Aloysius, in Dearbhla Molloy’s performance, all squinting, tight-lipped orthodoxy gives a hugely enjoyable account of a woman hell-bent on digging out evil. In contrast, Padraic Delaney’s non-conformist Father Flynn is a more opaque character. Bluff and seemingly outgoing and humane, he addresses the audience as his flock on the loneliness of the doubting outsider and the dangers of ‘gossiping women’.
Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by seeing Alan Bennett’s Beyond the Fringe sketch too many times – ‘have you a little piece in your corner’ – but I found it hard to take these sermons seriously; as indeed I had serious doubts about Father Flynn himself.
All of which feeds nicely into the ambivalence Shanley successfully girds about Doubt. Delaney plays him with enough bland ambiguity to make one indeed doubt both the sincerity of the character and the craftsmanship of the playwright.
But cometh the moment, cometh the man. In a terrific twist – and by far the best scene in the play – Shanley poses Sister Aloysius against Muller’s mother (a superb Nikki Amuka-Bird) in which the argument about possible abuse takes on an entirely unexpected turn. Donald is the only black pupil in the school – and possibly gay. For the aspirational Mrs Muller, Donald’s successful route to graduation and thence college is her major, over-riding concern. That and kindness. She wants no scandal. Father Flynn, she argues, was the only person who saw that Donald needed friendship and understanding. If that entails turning a blind eye to other implications, so be it.
Now, you can either take this as a shocking apologia for the unacceptable (and heaven knows it’s taken the Church, both Catholic and Protestant, long enough to own up to what has gone on behind the altar door) or see it rather as Shanley’s pulling the same clever, oppositional theatrical stunt that Mamet pulled off when he juxtaposed extreme, unpalatable arguments against each other in Oleanna.
Whatever, in Nick Kent’s production, neatly designed by John Gunter within swivelling convent panels and a dominating ecclesiastical pillar (sic), it certainly has the desired effect, raising an ordinary play – albeit on a topical and highly emotive issue – to a more thought-provoking level, even if Shanley spoils it with an over-egged climax.
Doubt is unquestionably built on the premise that to doubt is morally nobler and less repugnant than to maintain certainty, even if it is a more uncomfortable, harder place in which to reside. Shanley implies, though, that along with doubt comes a lesson in painful self-knowledge – a conclusion William Nicholson’s Shadowlands also acknowledges as, to an extent, does Howard Brenton’s In Extremis. Shanley may not have quite the giddy, intellectual thrust of a Nicholson or Brenton but his play casts a timely spotlight into some murky waters with more than enough imaginative theatrical flair to satisfy this reviewer.
Carole Woddis © 2007
Originally published 29-11-07
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