Review: Doubt, A Parable
Photo: Paul Nicholas Dyke
Sister Aloysius - Stella Gonet
Mrs Muller - Jo Martin
Father Flynn - Jonathan Chambers
Sister James - Clare Latham
"What do you do when you're not sure?"
So asks Father Flynn, the progressive and beloved priest at the St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, in his sermon.
It's 1964, and things are changing, to the chagrin of rigid principal Sister Aloysius.
However, when an unconscionable accusation is levelled against the Father, Sister Aloysius realises that the only way to get justice is to create it herself.
And as for the truth of the matter?
As Father Flynn says, "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty."
In stunning prose, John Patrick Shanley delves into the murky shadows of moral certainty, his characters always balancing on the thin line between truth and consequences.
Doubt, A Parable, in which a Catholic school principal questions a priest's ambiguous relationship with a troubled young student, is to get its first London revival in 10 years.
John Patrick Shanley's masterpiece is one of the most acclaimed plays in recent memory.
Winning 4 Tony Awards including Best Play, named Best Play by the New York Drama Critics' Circle, Best New Play (Drama Desk Awards) and Outstanding Play (Lucille Lortel Awards).
Doubt, A Parable won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The subsequent Hollywood film starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis, received 4 Oscar and 3 BAFTA nominations.
If you've stopped off to glance at the background information above, you'll already know of the awards this play has received - a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award for Best play and Best Play from the New York Drama Critics' Circle among them.
Those credentials speak volumes and suggest this play deserves to be seen irrespective of anything I have to say about it.
Yet, looking at its fundamental components, it doesn't seem like a vehicle that could attract that kind of universal acclaim.
There are only 4 characters and it's a relatively short play, and most of it consists of argument through dialogue.
In fact, nothing very much really happens, with one event (which we don't witness) being the hinge on which the story and its implications revolve.
That event is shrouded in ambiguity, and there's no hard evidence on which we, the audience, can make a judgment about what has happened.
Thus, most of the argument between the characters is based on speculation, circumstantial evidence and the beliefs and attitudes of the individuals involved.
Moreover, one might think that its religious setting, with nuns and a priest as central characters, might be off-putting for many, or at least seem remote or even possibly irrelevant for a modern audience.
Yet this is one of the most potently compelling plays you're ever likely to see - 'spellbinding' is a more appropriate and accurate description.
It's power derives from John Patrick Shanley's inspired script which not only keeps us guessing right up to the very end, but presents us with powerfully-drawn characters whose opposing perspectives, attitudes and motivations make us question our own certainty in the most unsettling manner.
Director Ché Walker cleverly sets up proceedings as an argument right from the start, with space largely separating the characters as their interactions proceed.
There's more of the secular about this play than the religious, even if two framed stained glass windows look down on events from each end of the acting area.
A walkway, with stained glass angular panels set into it and resembling the nave of a church, is the central feature in PJ McEvoy's simple and effective design which also manages to convey the atmosphere of a courtroom.
Even from the start, it sets the main protagonists apart with Jonathan Chambers' equivocal Father Flynn giving a sermon about certainty at one end, and his dour and cynical adversary, Sister Aloysius, the school principal, at the other.
There are no props to speak of even when they're referenced, such as tea cups and the like, and the characters don't move very much.
Here, it's what the characters say which is important, so this a play that demands that we listen intently, rather than passively watch, and we're compelled to do so.
We're all used to applause punctuating the end of a song in musicals - sometimes out of habit as much as anything.
Yet we don't hear applause for an actor's performance at the end of a scene - even for big name stars, and even on press nights.
At least, I've never heard it before in a theatre.
But Jo Martin's heartrendingly poignant performance as Mrs Muller shattered that convention, earning a much-deserved burst of spontaneous applause from a wholly captivated and entranced audience.
Pleading, in effect, for her son's life against inflexible authority, she offers Sister Aloysius a surprising, almost astonishing view about her son's plight which makes her performance all the more achingly plaintive.
But Stella Gonet is also immensely impressive as the unbending, almost maniacally determined Sister Aloysius who is, nevertheless, plagued by doubt.
She's well contrasted with her junior, Clare Latham's sweetly innocent Sister James, whose love of teaching is trashed by her older counterpart's jaded opinions about the motivations of students and how they should be schooled.
And in spite of his modernising views and seemingly kindly nature, Jonathan Chambers' Father Flynn still evokes enough ambiguity in his persona to leave us querying both his motivations and actions.
Even if this work leaves us questioning our own certainty, there is one thing we can be sure of leaving the theatre - John Patrick Shanley's unnerving play is a totally riveting and unmissable tour de force.
Friday 8 September 2017
I went to see 'Doubt, A Parable' at the Southwark Playhouse and just had to post my review.
This is without doubt the best £20 I've spent on anything!!
I came out the theatre buzzing.
Not since I saw 'The Crucible' at the Old Vic a couple of years a go has a piece of theatre been so exhilarating, brilliant story allied to fantastic performances by all and in particular Stella Gonet, masterful.
Surely theatre does not get much better than this, a night to remember.
GO SEE IT!!
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