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The Theatreguide.London Review

Doubt
Tricycle Theatre     Winter 2007-2008

John Patrick Shanley's drama is a powerful and thought-provoking parable that, as its title suggests, raises more questions than it answers.

It is not avant-garde or ground-breaking in any way, but does what the best mainstream theatre should - it engages your brain and your emotions and, not incidentally, provides some strong acting roles.

The play is set in 1964, in a New York City Catholic school. The principal, a nun of the old sort who would rather be feared by her students than loved, suspects that the new young priest is grooming one of the altar boys for abuse.

She has no evidence at all, beyond the most ambiguous of circumstantial hints, but she does have the absolute conviction that she is right, along with both personal and professional dislike of the man.

The priest, meanwhile, is placed in the position of defending himself when anything he says or does will be open to suspicious interpretation.

Caught in the middle is a naive young nun who is likely to be convinced by whichever of the others has most recently spoken to her, and thus serves as a surrogate for the vacillating audience.

Shanley constructs his plot, creates his characters and writes his dialogue with absolute control and expertise in order to foil any inclinations of the audience to make easy decisions.

Like the younger nun, you will find yourself pulled back and forth between the opposing characters and between thinking him innocent or guilty.

So Shanley makes the priest able to offer innocent explanations for all his suspect actions and repeatedly assert his innocence, but has him use exactly the rationalisations and special pleading a paedophile would employ.

The nun may seem to be swinging wildly with her accusations, but Shanley makes it unquestionable that her highest priority is the safety and well-being of the children.

You are likely to end the play, which has a particularly ironic twist, thinking that she never really proved her case, but there is something intangible about him that makes you wonder . . . .

Dearbhla Molloy captures all the contradictions in the elder nun, making it clear that she is closed-minded and personally threatened by the new liberalism in the Church (one reason Shanley chose this particular time setting) while never letting us doubt her sincerity or lose sight of the horror she's fighting.

Put another way, if she's wrong she's an absolute bitch, if she's right she's the children's saviour, and we honestly do not know which she is.

Padraic Delaney also builds his textured characterisation on ambiguity, skilfully treading the line of making everything he says and does subject, under the play's harsh scrutiny, to alternative interpretations.

Nikki Amuka-Bird has one powerful scene as the mother of the boy in question, whose reactions and priorities are both surprising and believable.

I was prepared to say that the role of the younger nun was an underwritten plot device and that Marcella Plunkett does as much as could be done with it.

But a friend who saw the play in New York assures me that much more could have been done with it, and that there should be more of a balanced three-sided debate and confrontation, with the heightened intensity that would have created, than there is here.

For that, and for the fact that the play (even at barely 80 uninterrupted minutes) sometimes meanders when it should crackle with intellectual and passionate energy, I have to temper my admiration for Nicolas Kent's direction.

Still, I encourage you to see Doubt, both on its own merits and as a reminder of how powerful a well-written mainstream drama can be.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Doubt - Tricycle  Theatre 2007

 

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