Monday, 11 September 2017

REVIEW: Doubt, A Parable at Southwark Playhouse

There is a self-referential flavour in Doubt, A Parable, which will let you return home with a puzzled mind.

Sister James is a young teacher at St. Nicholas Church School, in the Bronx, who, after a meeting with the school's principal Sister Aloysius, is deeply affected by the woman's assertiveness and lack of empathy for her pupils. 

Sister Aloysius's unsympathetic attitude extends also to her collaborators and, in particular, towards Father Brendan Flynn's, whose innovative preaching matters and progressive didactic approaches encounter her disapproval.

When Sister James mentions to her superior a one-on-one meeting between Father Flynn and the school's only African-American student, Donald Muller, Sister Aloysius opens a personal investigation on the priest, suspecting him of sexual misconduct. According to Sister James' report, after this private conversation the boy's breath smelled of wine and this fact could either incriminate or exonerate the priest. For Sister Aloysius, in fact, this is the ultimate proof that Father Flynn corrupted the boy, whereas the priest insists that he called a private meeting with Muller after discovering he had drunk some altar wine.

Both playwright John Patrick Shanley and director Ché Walker, categorically refuse to give out any elements that might address the audience towards one or the other account and the spectators are left alone to choose who they think is saying the truth. Moved by an overwhelming innocence, Sister James is the physical incarnation of this dilemma, and her opinion is uncertain until the very end. 

Impersonating Sister Aloysius with charismatic scepticism, Stella Gonet is unwavering and delivers each line with tireless vehemence. Whereas Jonathan Chambers is a committed and influential young priest, whose confidence sways dangerously when his integrity comes under scrutiny.

'Sometimes things are not black and white' says Donald Muller's mother, summoned by Sister Aloysius after the incident. Portrayed by Jo Martin, Mrs Muller carries the political voice of the play and her powerful speech about the welfare of her son resounds in the Large auditorium of the Southwark Playhouse, sparking an impromptu applause.

Played in the round, Doubt, A Parable benefits significantly from PJ McEvoy's
sleek design, which reproduces the cross-shaped foundations of a religious building. Staggered on three different levels, this platform is cleverly used by the director to offer a representation of the power games between the two antagonists and its visual function is completed by Tim Lutkin's imaginative lighting.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Play, Shanley's play is a tasteful criticism of the long-standing discrimination of African-American in the USA, but also a subtle accusation against the corruption of the clerical ranks. Since its debut in 2005, the drama has also become a critically acclaimed film with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. With its solid production values and excellent cast, this Southwark Playhouse production definitely deserves the standing ovation given by the audience on press night.

Review by Marianna Meloni

Rating: ★★★★
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