September 14, 2007

Uncertainty, Suspicion and True Belief

By John Patrick Shanley

State Theatre Company presents
The Sydney Theatre Company
Dunstan Playhouse.
September 6. Until September 22, 2007

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

It has been a productive time for Adelaide theatre in recent weeks. At the Bakehouse, Vitalstatistix has staged an excellent production, directed by Catherine Fitzgerald, of Love, Patricia Cornelius’s award-winning Australian play about a lovers’ triangle plunging into addiction and youthful despair. And for young audiences, Windmill Productions has presented a charming home-grown version of the Swedish classic, The Little Gentleman, directed by Neill Gladwin and featuring Paul Blackwell, with delightful music and design by Fleur Green and Dean Hills.

The State Theatre Company, currently celebrating its thirty-fifth year, has just won the 2007 Ruby award for “Sustained Contribution” and, from the Hamlet earlier in the year to the two most recent productions, that contribution has been variously evident. Last month’s Lion Pig Lion, a new work about individual and corporate ethics by Marty Denniss, despite able performances and diligent direction by Michael Hill, proved only a mixed success. But the company’s mainstage support of new Australian work is commendable and a timely reminder that for theatre to flourish it has to chance its arm as well.

State’s latest presentation, the Sydney Theatre Company production of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, not only gives Adelaide audiences a chance to see quality new writing but also the calibre of current work from the eastern states. On both counts, you might say, Doubt is a certainty. Shanley, who has had success with plays and screenplays such as Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and Moonstruck, has excelled with Doubt, a carefully fashioned text which earned him a Pulitzer prize in 2005.

Set in 1964, amidst the angst at the death of President Kennedy and hopes for liberalization in the Catholic Church with the recent Vatican II papal statements, Doubt takes place in a Bronx parochial school where a charismatic young priest, Father Flynn, is teaching alongside Sister James, an earnest and openhearted young nun eager to promote the new-found humanity in church teachings.

Also, in this brave new world, is the stern and watchful principal, Sister Aloysius who runs her school with an iron discipline and a cool, but not uncaring, eye. She values dispassionate distance in her teachers. To Sister James she mordantly observes that satisfaction is a vice and innocence, a form of laziness. She seems to be the spoiler in her garden of Eden but Shanley writes her skepticism and rigour, not just sympathetically but paradoxically – as she challenges easy assertions and unsustained beliefs, she is herself also making them. When she suspects something improper in Flynn’s private dealings with Robert Muller, the school’s first black student, she must break with the usual lines of ecclesiastical command and challenge a man who has powerfully established his credentials not just as a virtuous man but as emblematic of the future of the church.

Director Julian Meyrick has created a taut austerity in his production to match the finely tuned balances in the play. With Stephen Curtis’s blank Hopper-like design of pulpit, courtyard, and garden (with retractable office) the cloister has an opaque, ambiguous aspect, accentuated by Matt Scott’s often murky sprays of light.

The performances, on the other hand, are lucid but equally unfathomable as each character is shown to be locked inside his or her own beliefs, prejudices and justifications. Kate Box convincingly captures the idealism and need for approval in Sister James and Christopher Gabardi is excellent as the assured, astute – but unknowable – priest.

It is Jennifer Flowers as Aloysius who is especially memorable – pursuing her doubts with such dogged certainty. Even when thrown off kilter by the unexpectedly pragmatic response from Mrs Muller (Pamela Jikiemi) she continues her enquiries in a maze of mirrors. This is a well- judged production of an intriguing play which, in a crisp ninety minutes, covers a lot of territory, offers proofs of a kind, but never gratifies us with a definitive conclusion.

“Uncertainty, suspicion and true belief “ The Adelaide Review, No.325, September 14, 2007, p.27.

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