Review: Doubt, A Parable at The Southwark Playhouse
‘Doubt can be a bond … as powerful as certainty’. It's 1964 in the Bronx at St. Nicholas’ Catholic primary school. Sister Aloysius, the headteacher, suspects Father Flynn of sexually abusing a young black boy. What follows is a tight hour and half examination of doubt and reason, truth and ambiguity, hitting intersections of race, gender, sexuality and religion. Let me bend the already fragile rules here and argue that Doubt, A Parable is a four star production of a five star play. Go and see it immediately.
When I was first approached to see Doubt, A Parable I was greeted with your standard ‘READ OUR FABULOUS REVIEWS!’ style PR, except for once I was seeing words like ‘Pulitzer Prize’ and ‘8 Tony Awards’ instead of ‘his mum loved it’ and ‘some stars!’. Critically and commercially, Doubt is one of the most outstanding plays of this millennium, yet hasn't been staged in London for ten years.
In the decade of revelations since 2007, investigations in Ireland documented child abuse by the Catholic Church involving more than 15,000 children. In 2014 Pope Francis met with abuse victims; an attempt at apology and the establishment of a committee to ‘protect minors’. The Academy Award nominated feature film Spotlight brought the enormous scale of Catholic Church abuse cover-ups to an even wider, appalled audience in 2015.
Performed in this climate, Doubt retains its sense of critical purpose and relevance, which Shanley couldn't have predicted in 2004. The play reignites all of the fury and disbelief I felt watching Spotlight, and proves that this subject matter deserves to remain in the public consciousness. A tight four cast performance, Doubt nonetheless feels part of a wider collective discussion. Sensitive in-the-round staging embeds the audience into the performance; as clergy members, class basketball players, and omniscient witnesses to human conflicts - soft symbolism of our role as God in their judgement.
No words wasted, Shanley conjures such a vivid portrait of student Donald Muller, I forgot we never met him. Instead it's his mother (Jo Martin) who unequivocally steals the show, a one scene wonder demanding an incredibly rare mid-performance applause from a notoriously picky audience of press critics.
In her standoff with Sister Aloysius (Stella Gonet), desperate attempts to be understood as members of the same team are thwarted by Mrs Muller’s reality that her son is black, gay, and ‘only needs to get through until graduation in June’. Faced with an impossible decision to put her son’s chance at college and a future ahead of preventing possible sex abuse, Mrs Muller’s speech is profoundly moving, and entirely believable.
The saintly innocence of Sister James (Clare Lathem) is a necessary antidote to the fury of Mrs Muller and rigidity of Sister Aloysius, with a countenance that goads Aloysius to smirk that she'd ‘do anything for a warm look’. That kinda gal. I often found myself as furious at Sister James for her total naivety of the abuse in her own class as I was at Father Flynn, our charismatic, young, progressive abuser. As Flynn, Jonathan Chambers is the weakest link in this cast of phenomenal performances, but I nonetheless seethed at his gas-lighting of Sister Aloysius and eventual promotion in a new school in her attempt to remove him.
The play ends as sharply as it begins; Sister Aloysius alone on a bench, sobbing into her hands, admitting she is full of ‘so much doubt’. Far from an unsatisfying ending, Shanley respects the intelligence of his audience to surmise the truth for themselves.
That truth is that Father Flynn is a vile predator and Sister Aloysius is queen amongst nuns. Perhaps it’s the prevalence of gross lying misogynists in positions of power right now that provides Doubt, A Parable with new relevance, but there was no doubt in my mind by the end. I challenge you to leave with an ambiguous opinion.
Like optimism for winter, Doubt is only around this September, leaving the Southwark Playhouse at the end of the month.