a parable about the modern catholic church
“I stopped talking to him for fear of being misunderstood,” says Father Flynn, accused by a nun of having an inappropriate relationship with an altar boy in John Patrick Shanley’s slow-burning room, who is set in a Catholic boys’ school in the Bronx in 1964. Swiveling between a devastating accusation and its abject denial without favoring one or the other, Shanley’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner is one of the great plays on certainty morality and subjective truth, alongside Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) and David Mamet’s Oleanna. (1992).
Doubt has been rekindled many times and in different forms, from Broadway productions to a brilliant 2008 film starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and it’s tempting to think of it as a gladiatorial sport: a play that returns his audience at home still arguing whether the priest is guilty or not. Yet nearly 20 years after its creation, it now looks like a prescient parable of Twitter’s nightmare, in whose crosshairs anyone can be caught at any time, and in which accusations have become forms of evidence. These days, we’re all Father Flynn.
Lia Williams’ gripping production, which stars the excellent Monica Dolan as the ratchet-faced accuser Sister Aloysius, feels both timeless and socially specific. The school in which it is set, just a year after the assassination of John F Kennedy, combines an Old Testament atmosphere with a forward-looking thrust; Aloysius and young nun’s starchy and bonnet outfit, Sister James (Jessica Rhodes), looks like something out of a gothic morality tale, while the clean lines of Joanna Scotcher’s ensemble, complete with her retro cross – dominantly lit, suggest a funky modernist church.
It’s here, in a succession of fast-paced, tightly wound scenes, that the disarmingly wise but utterly joyless Aloysius of Dolan mounts his campaign against Sam Spruell’s young progressive priest, who plays basketball with the kids. and delivers sermons on the nature of doubt. His only evidence is an instinct that he got too close to the school’s only black student, Donald Muller, whom we never see. Audiences are first horrified by her monstrous self-righteousness, then left to wonder if she’s really right. Donald’s mother, Mrs. Muller (Rebecca Scroggs, terrific), who in an electrifying scene with Aloysius hints that she is not only aware of the implied relationship, but aware of her lonely son’s sexual persuasion, l implicitly sanctioned. .
Williams’ subtle, slippery production deftly allows for the possibility that Aloysius’ belief and Flynn’s protestations of innocence may on some level be true. Spruell’s boyish Flynn, for example, whose “let it all hang out” attitude is far better suited to the changing mood of the times than Aloysius’ spartan faith in deference and discipline, paints a plausible picture of a man to whom a close relationship with a vulnerable student might seem like a completely innocent, even commendable thing. At the same time, the seductive allure of certainty itself is put to the test. Dolan, of whom Aloysius is not so much a religious fanatic as a withered woman with no discernible inner life, explains convincingly not why such a woman could be unquestionably right, but why she could yearn for the purpose and power that the moral righteousness can bring .
Shanley’s position is clear, insofar as her piece argues for doubt itself as a legitimate philosophical and spiritual position. Doubt is indeed a parable, in that it primarily uses its characters to illustrate an idea, but it also demands – as Flynn himself argues Aloysius – that we see them as people like us, capable of holding multiple truths at a time. Yet it also leaves plenty of room for the audience to wonder if embracing shades of gray is still the best course: after all, the play is fully aware that the Catholic Church has needed more Sister Aloysius over the years. , rather than less. But then again, he asks, what about poor Donald, whose homophobic father apparently beats him, and who, by losing the possibly innocent Father Flynn, might lose his only friend? You decide. Or rather, don’t.
Until February 5. Tickets: 01243 781312; cft.org.uk