John Patrick Shanley
Chichester Festival Theatre
Festival Theatre, Chichester
The play is set in a Catholic Church and school in the Bronx, New York, in 1964, and on a geometrically sharply angled set, a brilliantly illuminated impression of a cross looms largely and almost accusingly towards the audience, dominating the stage and drawing all eyes to it, and the doubt begins here. Is it suggesting we have abandoned our faith or is it encouraging us to bring the true cross back as we again worship our God?
No answer is forthcoming, but in front of it, Father Brendon Flynn, magnificent in green and gold vestments, begins his sermon. The topic is “What do you do when you’re not sure—you look for direction.” A world tragedy can bring us all together in despair, but a personal tragedy for a lone man or woman can create the desperate pain of isolation “on one side of the glass happy untroubled people. On the other side you!” I immediately thought of Facebook with everyone showing the happy and successful sides of their lives causing those less fortunate to feel left out and alone.
Sermon over, we switch to the farthest corner of the vast set where sitting at her desk is Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the principle of the school and a strict disciplinarian. There is no doubt in her mind at all. She runs this school by the old traditional methods and anything new, even an innocent ballpoint pen, is forbidden. Young Sister James, reprimanded for being too easygoing, fears she has taken all the joy out of teaching. Neither is she too happy with the basketball-playing priest who is so popular with the boys and she has her suspicions, which turn into accusations, when she thinks there has been inappropriate ‘touching’ with a young boy, the only black child in the school.
Priest and Sister thrash out their often opposing values of morality, compassion, sincerity, discipline and faith with Sister having no doubt whatsoever that she needs to rid the school of this ‘perverted’ character, but how moral is her method and will she then have her doubts? Perhaps her suspicions were unfounded, or maybe the results of her actions created an even worse scenario. As it becomes fierce and confrontational, the dialogue seems to stand out, almost bouncing off the stark and unforgiving set, and there are no answers given. The audience have to decide for themselves.
Monica Dolan blazes as Sister Aloysius. Her zeal, her frustration, her anger are palpable at every twist and turn of the argument, while Sam Spruell as Father Brendan Flynn fights back with reason but also with threats, yet never giving anything away. Did he or didn’t he? Is he or is he not?
Excellent portrayals too from Jessica Rhodes as Sister James, wide-eyed, innocent and caring, also Rebecca Scroggs as Mrs. Muller, the boy's mother, down to earth and pragmatic seeing that the Father is the only friend her son has and she would like it to stay that way.
Director Lia Williams and designer Joanna Scotcher have worked closely together to make every word and action of the play important and visually exciting, and attention to detail even includes the nuns’ habits created authentically from hand-drawn sketches supplied by The Sisters of Charity in New York.
Passionately dramatic and exquisitely performed… a play with issues to ponder over for a very long time.
Reviewer: Sheila Connor