It is often too easily said that a particular work is ‘a play for our times’, but Doubt is surely one that undoubtedly is such. As the title suggests, it is indeed a parable that gives all of us food for thought and reflection. Above all, as the quote at the head of this review suggests, over-confidence in the source of evil can lead to actions that take one far from the source of good.
In the pursuit of wrongdoing one steps away from God.
John Patrick Shanley’s play won a Tony and a Pulitzer when it first played in 2004-5, and then travelled around the world. But it is ten years since London last presented it, and how does it look now?
It is a four-hander, with nine scenes, that runs for eighty-five minutes; yet these apparently modest proportions are deceptive. This new production packs a real punch, both locally (with two scenes punctuated by specific applause on press night), and cumulatively, through some magnificent performances, which evenhandedly serve to highlight the risks and dangers associated with both moral conviction and creeping doubt and scepticism.
The play is set in the Bronx in the US of 1964, as the old orthodoxies of church and education begin to creak and crack in the face of social change. Sister Aloysius (Stella Gonet) is the head teacher of a church school with an exactingly traditionalist cast of mind: even the use of ballpoint pens shows an apparent falling away from the gold standard of a fountain pen. She is determined not only to assert the possibility of moral certainty, but to enforce those certainties on all around her.
The countervailing view is apparent right from the opening, which takes the form of a sermon from Father Flynn (Jonathan Chambers), a parish priest of progressive views for whom ‘Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.’ Flynn finds a positive role for ambiguity in education so long as it is accompanied by care, understanding and warm affection.
Caught in the middle between these two, and in some ways intended to reflect the oscillating position of the audience, is Sister James (Clare Latham), a young and impressionable history teacher. She both wishes to live up to the high standards of her boss, whom she admires, while at the same time wishing to inspire and care pastorally for the children. Much of the action of the play concerns the conflicting demands placed on her, and the impossibility of reconciling two views that are fundamentally different and mutually exclusive interpretations of how life might be lived.
The great beauty and elegance of this play, however, is the way the author shows that neither moral certainty nor systematic doubt or relativism is a satisfactory answer. The path to integrity is often a gritty and messy one.
Here the crucial role is played by Mrs Muller, (Jo Martin) the mother of the boy at the centre of the drama, someone struggling with the daily facts of racism, domestic violence and poverty who cannot afford such grandstanding, and simply wants the best for her son. This is not a case of Alfred Doolittle’s ‘Morals? Can’t afford ‘em guv’nor!’ Rather, it is a profoundly moving recognition that goodness occurs in unexpected places and requires a humane, openness of mind and acceptance of human foibles. Her confrontation with Sister Aloysius is the highpoint of the evening, and rightly brought the show to a temporary halt.
As must be the case in any play that aims to offer a true debate, much of it between two characters at a time, everyone, even Sister Aloysius, is given a fair hearing. Shanley is very careful to leave us guessing as to what really happens in the plot. Certainty is allowed its intoxicating side – one only has to think of the character of Miss Jean Brodie for some close and relevant parallels. And as played here, Sister Aloysius is given a dry sense of humour, a canny if narrow understanding of human foibles, and a forensic intelligence, all of which balances her coldness, vindictiveness and self-righteousness.
Likewise, the priest is far from being someone who can simply be placed on a pedestal. We are left thinking that Sister Aloysius may be right to be suspicious about him, but for the wrong reasons. Black and white dominate the visual palette, but not the moral balance sheet.
The play seems all the more pertinent a decade on from its first production. With so many more revelations in so many churches about the abuse of authority and the sexual abuse of children, the direct subject matter is still full-on relevant. But there are also many other shrewd and thought-provoking points about the responsibility of teachers and parents, and the way in which so often hierarchies collude in abuse even without necessary evil intent. In fact it is a classic instance of how drama can make crucial issues in ethics readily accessible and urgent for those without any philosophical training.
Performed in the round, or rather rectangle, it is hard to see how this production could be bettered. A cruciform walkway provides the catwalk of confrontation, ingeniously lit from below in P.J.McEvoy’s suggestive stained-glass design, which gives enough of an ecclesiastical setting without spelling it out. Director Chè Walker moves the cast around elegantly and fluently and ensures that no punches are pulled when it comes to the set-piece dynamics.
Robin Lill’s costumes have both the right period authenticity and the carefully calibrated differences too that always occur when individuals are wearing the same habit or uniform.
Three of the four roles are peerlessly played. Stella Gonet’s flinty and wily performance dominates as it must, but she is well matched in the feisty and sympathetically fine-grained performance by Jo Martin, and in the soft equivocations and insecurities of Latham’s Sister James. The only facet of this diamond of a production that displays any kind of flaw is Chambers’ portrayal of Flynn.
Not only is he really a bit too young to play Father Flynn convincingly, but he does not stand up to Sister Aloysius as well as he might or weaken quite as he needs to under her guileful onslaught. This was not a poor performance, but simply not as rich, layered or psychologically revealing as the others.
It is often too easily said that a particular work is ‘a play for our times’, but this is surely one that undoubtedly is such. As the title suggests, it is indeed a parable that gives all of us food for thought and reflection. Above all, as the quote at the head of this review suggests, over-confidence in the source of evil can lead to actions that take one far from the source of good.