In both their Covent Garden home and in Wyndham’s in the West End they have been producing some incredible work and this new production sees them continuing that trend.
Be Near Me is Ian McDiarmid’s adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s novel, in which he also plays the lead, Father David Anderton.
It reveals how the victim culture of the Scottish town of Dalgarnock (a fictitious place that recalls Dalry, Dalmellington and Dalrymple) itself leads to the victimisation of its Roman Catholic priest, an English outsider in the community.
Directed by John Tiffany (the man responsible for the rapturously received Black Watch), the play focuses on the trials and torments of this man, who, unable to connect with either his true self or others, hides behind his dog collar and the church. It also, however, explores the history and nature of Scottish society. With commentaries on small town mentality, poverty, religion, terrorism, homosexuality and, above all, distrust of ‘the other’, it covers the themes inherent in Scottish novels such as George Douglas Brown’s The House with the Green Shutters, Willa Muir’s Imagined Corners and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Cloud Howe.
From the start, the community stereotypes David as being far more prudish than he actually is, but he doesn’t help himself by living up to this image and coming across as condescending. Conversely, when he tries to connect with the youth they treat him as a novelty to be laughed at which forces him to become more hip and liberal than he is comfortable with.
As the play’s themes are established through David’s interactions with other characters in the first half, some weaknesses are apparent. The scenes feel long and unstructured, which makes some of the points being made feel laboured. For example, the singing and rapping of the teenagers Mark (Richard Madden) and Lisa (Helen Mallon), as they try to shock David, feels contrived.
But even in the play’s comparatively weak moments, Ian McDiarmid’s performance as David remains constant. Perhaps because he constructed his own lines, his performance has an air of ease about it, and through the soft and sensitive delivery of his words we see a man internally tormented, and never at ease in whatever situation he is in. As the first half ends, David kisses the young Mark, resulting in the whole town accusing him of abusing the boy.
The second half feels stronger, as the ensemble comes into its own. We witness a dinner party at which David supports the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, arguing that people must sacrifice their liberal ideals when evil exists. In countering this, Bishop Gerard (Jimmy Yuill) feels like an infinitely more acceptable character, not because his thinking is necessarily spiritually or morally superior, but because it is more in line with mainstream Scottish socialist principles.
The trial of David over the alleged abuse shows the locals at their worst, leading David to lament that he has achieved the impossible in uniting this society (against him). David wants the evidence to speak for itself to prove his innocence, but his words are twisted by a prejudiced judge and his own lawyer who ironically claims he can help David because he understands the Scottish legal system.
Other notable performances come from Blythe Duff as David’s housekeeper, one of the few people able to help David by being a match for him, and Colette O’Neil as David’s mother, a successful novelist who claims that she gets most of her ideas from her son.
The entire drama takes place in a single space with scenery changes usually consisting of moving a single table. This helps to create the sense of a claustrophobic Scottish town, a feeling accentuated by actors sitting at the back of the stage when not in the scene and frequently bursting into Scottish folk-style songs.
Whether the subject matter is mainstream enough to draw in the necessary crowds is debatable, but in terms of sheer quality this production is worthy of following in the footsteps of Piaf in transferring to the West End. Its success, however, would much depend upon McDiarmid remaining in the principal role.