John Patrick Shanley
In these days of suspicion and fear, where adults will ignore children in distress for fear of being labelled a paedophile, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt could have been a very timely addition to the theatrical canon.
As the Catholic Church tears itself apart with allegations of child abuse, and parents and teachers eye each other in mutual suspicion, a good dramatisation of the subject seems overdue. One might even wonder why there haven’t been more writers tackling these subjects head on although, it arguably takes a brave soul to do so. Even Chris Morris’s satirical take, now six years old, still touches too many raw nerves in a society obsessed by the tragic tale of Madeleine McCann.
The play is getting its UK premiere at the Tricycle Theatre, no doubt in anticipation of a West End run sometime in 2008. It is now three years since its off-Broadway debut and production has just begun on a film version with Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman; a perfect time to assess its virtues. Sadly, there are just too few.
The story opens in 1964 in a school run by priests and nuns in New York’s Bronx district. Father Flynn (Pdraic Delaney) is seen by Sister James (Marcella Plunkett) apparently comforting a male pupil, on whose breath she later smells alcohol. Suspecting the worst, she reports the matter to the principal, Sister Aloysius (Dearbhla Molloy), who takes on the mantle of inquisitor with the explicit aim of having Flynn removed from the school.
Such a promising premise as this makes the failure of the script and the production to come to life a real drag. Badly underplotted and lacking dramatic tension, Shanley gives the audience none of the doubts that are supposed to be central to the play, leaving the whole experience as unsatisfying as paddling in the sea. It does not seem unreasonable to expect the author to convince us there are some grounds for suspicion that might lead us to side to some degree with the dogmatic Sister Aloysius; instead Shanley leaves it up to the audience to make the “no smoke without fire” leap itself, something which, frankly, shows a limited grasp of dramaturgy.
The poor quality writing is then put through the accent blender by the cast to create an absolute stinker of a theatre soup. Why Delaney was allowed to base his characterisation of Flynn on a poor man’s version of De Niro’s Jake La Motta is a question only director Nicolas Kent can answer. Similarly, the grating monotone of Molloy, who seems like she ought to be a good actress, really needs some work it is an impossible task to make any sense of her as she gives every line equal weight, stressing words seemingly at random.
An initially promising turn from Nikki Amuka-Bird as the over-pragmatic parent of the alleged abused child seems to make less sense as her scene goes on indicating a fundamental problem with the script rather than any inherent lack of talent. Marcella Plunkett’s portrayal of the spineless Sister James simply substitutes ersatz emotion for real conviction.
Casting and directing problems aside, the fundamental flaws of this piece lie squarely in the writing. If Shanley had an ambition to make this a modern-day Crucible which it might easily have been his inability to write three-dimensional characters really holds him back. Since we don’t believe anything about the accused nor his accuser, the whole thing is just a shaggy dog story about a straw man that, profound as it wants to be, goes absolutely nowhere.
West End transfer? I seriously doubt it.