Doubt by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Julian Meyrick for the Sydney Theatre Company. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 9.
Presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company at The Playhouse, The Arts Centre, April 8. (Melbourne season ends May 13.)
Set and costume design by Stephen Curtis. Lighting design by Matt Scott. Original music and sound design by Max Lyandvert. With Jennifer Flowers, Alison Bell, Christopher Gabardi and Pamela Jikiemi.
In this line of work, it’s not at all uncommon to see many different productions of a work, especially of classics and important Australian plays.
Less often, we get the chance to follow a play or a production from birth. Here, I’m thinking of Andrew Bovell’s comedy After Dinner
, which went from the fifty-seat La Mama Theatre to Theatreworks to the National Theatre to the Victorian Arts Centre. (It always baffled me: why that
particular play? Why not Shades of Blue
or Ship of Fools
or any other of Bovell’s great works? Must it always
be a function of cast size?)
I saw four separate productions of David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Proof
in two years... with different directors, different casts and three different sets. (The Sydney Theatre Company production recycled Tony Tripp’s extraordinary MTC set.) The last two of those productions -- in Perth and Brisbane -- opened the same week. There was a fifth production, by the STCSA, but I had to draw the line somewhere!
With new plays, a variety of readings and interpretations usually helps us in the critical analysis of a play. It helps delimit who is responsible for what in a production. Funnily enough, it was of next-to-no use at all with Proof
, an amazingly “well-made” play... one which gave away all
of its secrets at first viewing. The only meaningful comparisons one could make between productions of Auburn’s play were about casting choices... Was Jacqueline McKenzie better than Rachel Griffiths? Was Frank Gallacher better than Barry Otto? And so on.
Going back, and back, and back, my question “why does this work?” decayed to “does this work?” My initial judgement -- that precise timing (of information revelation and of bell-tolling twists) was no substitute for drama -- wasn’t ever threatened; and that digital perfection didn’t make up for soullessness.
With John Patrick Shanley’s new play Doubt
, I got to do something different again: to see two opening nights of the one production, two months and a thousand-odd kilometres apart. Same set, same cast, same production team. (This Sydney Theatre Company production is, in fact, directed by the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Associate Director, Julian Meyrick.)
I’ve done this, often enough, with operas (Lulu
in the last few years) and musicals (Cabaret
, Lion King
and others), but usually there are key cast changes.
First up, I’ve got to say that the premiere in Sydney, eight weeks ago, was impressively well-rehearsed. The play hit the boards running after the MTC’s standard four week rehearsal period. It was a terrific night of mainstage theatre: classy, clever, intelligent, thought-provoking, detailed and touching. It fell just short of troubling. I couldn’t say whether this was by “intelligent design” or not. (Nor could I say with any certainty if that was a function of writing, direction or performance!)
In brief, the principal of a north Bronx catholic school suspects a young priest of having an unnatural interest in a eighth grade boy, a new kid at the school. It’s 1964 and Donald Muller, the boy, is the school’s first black student. (The rest are either Irish or Italian in descent.)Jennifer Flowers as the formidable principal of St Nicholas Catholic School,
Sister Aloysius (photograph Tracey Schramm, click on the image to enlarge)
The principal, Sister Aloysius, entreats the boy’s kindly and idealistic young teacher, Sister James, to look out for anything untoward. Vigilance will protect and shelter the children in their care. Aloysius coldly tells the young nun that “innocence” -- i.e. at the blackboard end of the classroom -- “is a form of laziness.” And that “satisfaction is a vice. ” (The lines are glib and aphoristic -- and draw laughs -- but they are true enough, in context.)
The nuns soon have a flimsy case against Father Flynn, and suspicions set like concrete. Aloysius will not be persuaded of Flynn’s innocence, and she vows to drive him out of the parish. She has no doubt.
Rather than providing an apologia for the disgraced Catholic churches of America, where abuses not only occurred but were covered up within the church hierarchy, John Patrick Shanley tunes the scenario (as David Williamson might) so that it causes as much soul-searching and discomfort in its audience as possible, and sheds as much light on human nature -- our hunger for certainty and our need for safety -- as possible.
Like Williamson, Shanley plays God. But he plays God in the John Fowles sense, where God is “the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist.” And while the scenario is conspicuously tuned -- blueprinted like a high-performance engine -- it’s also peopled with fleshy, believable, recognisable, multi-dimensional characters. There is soul in this machine.
But I have to say, at that first performance, in Sydney, I kept waiting for a Crucible-style twist which never eventuated. And I left the premiere with one nagging thought: director (Meyrick) and actor (Christopher Gabardi) had decided that Father Flynn was guilty.
I felt sure that they had made this decision.
I also thought -- rightly or wrongly -- that this was a decision that the playwright had not made for them. On the strength of a single viewing, I didn’t think the text (as performed, at least) provided enough information, enough evidence, for a “beyond reasonable doubt” verdict. Or even a “balance of probabilities” verdict.
Now, I completely understand the need for a cast and crew to decide for themselves one way or another -- to provide a through-line for the actor and the performance -- but I thought it was a mistake to make that choice visible. It weakened the play. It was a flaw in the production. It turned a play about judgement into judgement day for Flynn alone.
Christopher Gabardi as Father Flynn and Alison Bell as Sister James
(photograph Tracey Schramm, click on the image to see full size)
Since the Sydney season opened, a poorly-judged scene in which the accused priest sits down and puts his clenched hands on his knees like a guilty schoolboy has been jettisoned, praise the Lord!
Eight weeks on -- after perhaps 50 or 60 performances -- the wobble in this gyroscopic play is gone. And perpetual motion brings with it perpetual light. More light, certainly. And with it, my need for an Arthur Miller-style upheaval has vanished.
Doubt is a play I might return to in coming weeks. It’s well worth closer scrutiny as a piece of dramatic literature, more polemical than didactic. But, for the time being, I’ll simply note that the production -- in every respect -- is now on a par with the text. Very fine. Very refined. Very persuasive. And, ironically perhaps, very sure.
UPDATE: Tuesday, April 11, 2006
For a very different take on the play, see Alison Croggon’s review at Theatre Notes:
“At no point does this play expose the molten emotional core of the crime which is at the centre of its plot. It carefully steps around it, concentrating on the moral dilemmas faced by each of the characters. But without any real sense of what's at stake - whether it's Aloysius's unjustified smearing of an innocent man's reputation, or the life-long damage caused by child sexual abuse - Doubt's moral "theme" remains just that: an abstract idea.”
OTHER SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY REVIEWS:
The Cherry Orchard (January 2006)
The Lost Echo by Barrie Kosky & Tom Wright (September 2006)
Labels: Andrew Bovell, David Auburn, David Williamson, John Patrick Shanley, Julian Meyrick, Melbourne, Sydney, Sydney Theatre Company