Writer: John Patrick Shanley
Director: Chè Walker
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
It’s a brave move for the Southwark Playhouse to present Doubt, when the play, written in 2005, is best remembered for the film version, which came out in 2008 trailing Oscar nominations in its wake. Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman so embodied the roles of Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn that any subsequent productions must work hard to distinguish themselves from such iconic performances. Doubt, at the Southwark Playhouse, doesn’t quite shake off the film’s stardust.
It’s 1964, and the St Nicholas Church School in the Bronx has admitted its first African-American student, Donald, but the school’s principal, Sister Aloysius, suspects that the parish priest, Father Flynn, is taking an unhealthy interest in the new pupil. Her suspicions are confirmed when teacher Sister James encounters 12-year-old Donald coming out of the rectory looking upset and smelling of alcohol. Sister Aloysius makes it her mission to force Flynn into a confession, even if her methods are immoral: ‘In pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God’ she says, defending her tactics.
Stella Gonet gives a strong performance as Sister Aloysius, always tenacious and alert. However, in her pinched expressions and with her spectacles and religious bonnet – the last two required by the stage directions- there is, perhaps, a little too much of Streep in her performance. Gonet’s commitment to her character is rock-solid, though she needs to let glimmers of doubt leak through Aloysius’s single-mindedness.
In the film, Hoffman’s multi-layered performance made sure that audiences were never quite certain whether Father Flynn was guilty of sexual assault or not. With Hoffman, there was something of a whiskey priest about Flynn whereas Jonathan Chambers’ Flynn is clean-cut and upright. Looking younger than the late-30s required by the text, Chambers completely expels Hoffman’s shadow. With his looks, there is something Matt Damon-esque – innocent and likable – about Chambers’ performance and it is difficult to suspect him of any misconduct. For the play to work, there must be some suggestion of darkness behind the priest’s interest in Donald’s welfare.
While the play is mainly concerned with the battle between the priest and the nun, man, and woman, Clare Latham brings rebellious undertones to her portrayal of Donald’s teacher, Sister James, and Jo Martin is excellent as Donald’s mother, who would rather sweep the whole business under the carpet as long as her son is safe at home. Played in the round, PJ McEvoy’s set, a series of platforms embedded with giant slithers of stained glass, cleverly resembles a courtroom as much as a church. One the main platform, the Eye of Providence replaces the altar, though in this production it seems that this all-seeing eye belongs not to God but to Sister Aloysius.
After Operation Yewtree, when many celebrities were found guilty of historic sexual crimes and when many others were wrongly accused, Doubt has a particular resonance in Britain today as lives are still ruined by malicious gossip. The cast under Chè Walker’s economic direction is adept at representing this paranoia, but for a play about doubt, there is too much certainty in this production.
Runs until 30 September 2017 | Image: Paul Nicholas Dyke