Doubt. A Parable, the play by John Patrick Shanley, won the Pulitzer prize and the Tony Award in 2005. All four of the actors were nominated for the Tony, too. The actors, Cherry Jones and Brian F. O’Bryne won. It was made into a film, directed by Mr Shanley, with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis – all were nominated for Academy Awards (they didn’t win). So, history tells us that this is a well written play with great acting opportunities.
For me, the writing, though worthy of all the praise it has received, is just a little too ‘neat’, ‘tidy’ – oddly, too contrived in its blunt focused storytelling and treatment of its issues. It is sub-titled A Parable – which by definition is a short allegorical story designed to convey some truth or moral lesson, and so I should just get over it, I guess. And, generally, I have.
Set In a Catholic school in the Bronx, in 1964, the play takes place during the great changes of the Second Ecumenical Council, set up by Pope John XXIII in 1962, and completed by Pope Paul VI in 1965. A strictly conventional head mistress of the ‘old guard’, Sister Aloysius (Belinda Giblin), is confronted with information from a younger nun, Sister James (Matilda Ridgeway), of a suspicion of improper behaviour between the young ‘hip’ priest, Father Flynn (Damian de Montemas), and their only African-American student, Donald Muller. Sister James is infused (confused?) with the ‘loosening spirit’ of the new Ecumenical church age. Aloysius, who entered the nunnery late, after marriage, has been chafing under the patriarchal control of the church and following her instincts manufactures a circumstance to confront Flynn. She does so knowing she cannot expect support from the senior men of her church, but achieves a ‘victory’ with the voluntary transfer by Flynn away from her school. That victory, however, was achieved through a ‘blackmail’ based on a deceit, a lie. Sister Aloysius had no evidence, only instinct, and though in action is victorious, is punished with doubt as to the possibilities of the actual ‘truth’.
We, the audience, are left with a doubt, as well. What with the abuse scandals uncovered worldwide that are still an on-going confrontation and issue, we may enter this play with prejudices galore. There will be discussion afterwards in the bar, for sure.
All the performances are ‘good’. However, Belinda Giblin, as Sister Aloysius, inhabits the responsibility of this role with a frightening possession and gives a performance, that registers a wide range of genuine emotional choices – with ironic humour, too, blessedly, as a part of her armoury. Her theatrical power, presence, is the superlative energy of this production – it must be so, for this play to make its mark. There is not a moment of doubt from any of us in surrendering to the vacillating truths of this nun/woman, in this production.
Matilda Ridgeway, gives a ‘knowing’ performance, and is generally convincing, but has her Sister James, weeping, streaming tears in every scene (it reminded me of Ms Ridgeway’s work, as Ophelia, in the Bell Hamlet). It is hard to read this tear-filled choice by the actor (that is not signified by the writer), to be able to make sense of her character – for this Sister James is clearly emotionally unstable, maybe, even unsuitable for her job. Why the vigilant Aloysius makes no comment, or demand a justification for this behaviour, along with the showing of her hair from under her headdress – clearly breaking the ‘rules’ of her order – is, too, a problem. If Aloysius rants after the use of the ballpoint pen in class, or the number of sugar cubes in a cup of tea, I feel sure she would reprimand James on her risqué, dishabille of uniform. It is an odd lack of logical ‘continuity’ in this production.
Damian de Montemas as Flynn, is impeccable in his naturalistic ‘filmic/television’ detailing of his character, and is certainly an attractive physical presence to win the attention of his congregation, but lacks the charismatic energy to continue to entrance us, to capture us, with his sermonising – there are two significant sermons in the play and both fail to hold us to rapt attention – which dramaturgically is a necessary. As well, Mr Montemas’ performance lacks the theatrical fire power to countermand the force of Ms Giblin, so that their verbal ‘duels’ are uneven in affect (check the work between Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the 2009 film version – especially the last great confrontation, to see what I mean).
In the small but pivotal role and scene, Charmaine Bingwa, sat tightly on a chair, by the director, throws a moral spanner into the debate, as Mrs Muller argues for her child’s welfare, with conviction.
The simple, spare design, with two separate spaces. These are coloured, I supposed, in a ‘metaphoric’ grey – avoiding the dogmatic declaration of black and white – by Jonathan Hindmarsh; and attractively lit by Alexander Berlage.
Dino Dimitriades, has directed this production with dramatic skill and it is a suspenseful and taut 80-odd minutes in the theatre. It is the writing that he honours clearly, and the magnificent performance by Ms Giblin, that makes this experience in the theatre of interest.
Company: Apocalypse Theatre Company/ Red Line
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St, Woolloomooloo
Dates: 10 May – 3 June 2017
For more of Kevin Jackson’s theatre reviews, check out his blog at Kevin Jackson’s Theatre Diary
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- The Clean House (New Theatre) – theatre review
- Permission to Spin (Old Fitz) – theatre review
- Night Slows Down (KXT) – theatre review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television