Doubt, A Parable review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Timely revival of John Patrick Shanley’s drama about a priest who forges a questionable relationship with a pupil

Truth itself gets a drubbing in this timely resurrection of John Patrick Shanley’s 2005 play ‘Doubt’: a 1960s-set drama that feels nicely primed for the age of fake news and the moral echo chambers of social media. It’s set in 1964 in a Catholic boys’ school in the Bronx and pitches the fiery, conservative absolutism of the school’s headmistress, Sister Aloysius (Stella Gonet, looking and sounding as if she’s stepped out of the seventeenth century), against the more progressive (in Catholic church terms) presence of a parish priest, Father Flynn (Jonathan Chambers). He’s a young spirit who spins basketballs on his fingers and speaks from the pulpit of how feelings of doubt can be just ‘as powerful and sustaining’ as certainty.

Is the priest’s speech a modern take on belief? Or an insight into his own conflicted soul? Not only are Flynn and Aloysius’s temperaments so opposing, but Aloysius believes that Flynn is having an inappropriate relationship with an unseen boy, Donald, the school’s first African-American pupil. The play moves from suspicion to confrontation to fallout – a series of difficult conversations, mostly one-on-one. It’s ‘The History Boys’ without the laughs, told from the sidelines. Stuck in the middle is a wide-eyed, sensitive younger nun, Sister James (Clare Letham, interestingly marshalling a tender loss of innocence). The play’s only other onstage character is the boy’s mother, Mrs Muller (Jo Martin, the performance of the night). 

There was an Oscar-nominated film of Shanley’s play in 2008 (directed by Shanley himself), and if you’ve seen it, it’s hard to shake the memory of the excellent trio of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. That’s not these actors’ fault, and the performances are good, even if they struggle to match the knotty complexity of the text, which should have you doubting your thoughts and prejudices at every turn. That doesn’t happen half as much as it should. Too much feels black and white.

Ché Walker’s production aims for raw simplicity: there are no props or furniture and the set consists only of two stained-glass windows suspended from above and a slightly awkward and garish raised platform in the shape of the cross (looking oddly like a cake). This simplicity gives the words their due, and the high point of this revival is, without doubt, the mid-play conversation between Aloysius and Mrs Muller, in which the mother takes us into grey areas that are necessarily and thrillingly provocative. Elsewhere, there are powerful moments but you wish more of this slightly rushed-feeling production went in the same direction.

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