In these strange times of uncertainty, with contrasting opinions on the seriousness of the pandemic and how it should be handled, and our political leaders constantly being exposed as liars and scoundrels, it’s not inappropriate that we should turn to a parable for help. My OED defines a parable as “a saying in which something is expressed in terms of something else […] a narrative of imagined events used to illustrate or convey a moral or spiritual lesson”.
What better time for the Chichester Festival Theatre to give us – all too briefly – John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable, winner of the 2005 Tony Award for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Ninety minutes of uncertainty and suspicion crammed into one act; the original cast apparently described the second act as the audience deciding who was right and who was wrong on their journey home. And so it still is; we sat in the pub for hours afterwards debating the whys and wherefores of it all.
The play is set in a Catholic school and church in New York in 1964. Head nun and principal Sister Aloysius is a stickler for the old style of education – the children are all terrified of her and that’s exactly how she wants it. She takes naïve young teacher Sister James to task for being too enthusiastic and forward thinking in her teaching style; but also takes advantage of her honesty by asking her what she feels about the charismatic Father Flynn, who teaches the boys sport and who has taken a shine to one particular boy, Donald Muller. Sister Aloysius is convinced there is something unnatural about his interest in Donald, and seeks to expose it. Father Flynn is appalled at the suggestion; but then he would be, wouldn’t he.
Like feathers wafted from a torn pillow, gossip spreads uncontrollably; and once they’re out there, you can’t gather those missing feathers and stuff them back in the pillow. Is Sister Aloysius right? Is he a danger to the children? Or is Father Flynn right, and is his care purely pastoral? And what does Donald’s mother make of it all? I was going to say you’ll have to watch the play to find out, but there are no easy answers to these questions, and you’ll have to spend your own second act working it all out to your best conclusion. At the end of the ninety minutes, you simply don’t know what to believe. Sister Aloysius has the last word and the last gesture, as you would expect. Does she have doubt?
It’s a beautifully crafted and written play, with a sparse elegance, relatively simple plot line (but watch out for the twists) and riveting characters. Joanna Scotcher’s comfortless design reveals a world of Spartan harshness, where the patchy and scratchy gardens are precisely like those where the seed falls on stony soil; there’s another parable for you. The nuns’ plain black habits make a telling contrast with the colour of the Father’s vestments and his white sports kit, and Mrs Muller’s formal but smart outfit. Looming over everything at the back of the stage is a cross in reverse; light streams through a cross shape that has been cut out of a black background, suggesting that perhaps an absence of organised religion sheds more light on the world than its presence.
Central to the whole production is a thrillingly controlled performance by Monica Dolan as Sister Aloysius; her clipped, well-chosen words cutting through any pretence of kindness or supportiveness. Listening to others’ opinions, her facial muscles quiver with anticipation at her next well-planned and killing rejoinder. Ruthless and driven, she didn’t get where she is today without enormous self-assertiveness. But are her actions justified in protecting the children? Maybe.
She’s matched by an excellent performance by Sam Spruell as Flynn, his relaxed eloquence and caring, measured tones making a complete contrast with Sister Aloysius, until his fury is lit by her accusations. Is his personal, hands-on style a reassuring presence in Donald’s life? Maybe. Jessica Rhodes is also excellent as Sister James, desperately hoping that the unpleasant situation would just go away so that life can be happy again. Is her innocent, generous attitude protecting the children? Maybe. And Rebecca Sproggs gives a brilliant performance as Mrs Muller, weighing the balance of good versus bad, seeing the situation from a broader perspective from outside this cloistered existence, with a sense of practicality and realism. Is she looking after her child’s best interests? Probably.
A stunning production from Lia Williams and four superb performances make this a truly riveting drama. Sadly it was only scheduled for a very brief run at the Festival Theatre, where it closes on February 5th. Do yourself a favour and see it.
Production photos by Johan Persson