Perversion and the cross

 

Just lately I have found myself having several conversations with acquaintances (and myself) about the world’s major faiths. Their essence, their essential differences and similarities and all the messy bits in between, including why in the name of religion so many people have lost their lives. One part of Christianity that has been getting a bad press in recent years is Catholicism and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt – A Parable (Chichester Festival Theatre), set in a school and a church in the Bronx, New York, in the 1960’s, is a compelling portrayal of the clash of two traditions, which continue to trouble the Catholic faithful today.

School principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Monica Dolan) is wedded to discipline and strict Catholic teaching, unafraid to fight for her beliefs, while the basketball-playing priest and teacher Father Brendan Flynn (Sam Spruell) is liberal-minded and charismatic. All this at a time in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ when the papacy was in the hands of Pope Paul VI, a man described as a “kindly priest with a liberal heart and a conservative soul.” That duality suggests he may have been accepting of both Sister and Father. Against that background, Shanley sets one against the other in a battle of wills. Designer Joanna Scotcher’s provocative set is a powerful yet ambiguous statement. A gargantuan cross, created by clever lighting looms over a forlorn looking tree, devoid of life.

Entrenched as they are in their ways, Shanley’s skilfully crafted and nuanced writing does not show favour to either side. Father Flynn’s opening sermon sets out his stall exclaiming, “What do you do when you are not sure? You look for direction,” digging deep into the pain of personal loss and isolation. His charismatic personality shines and he brings empathy and hope of change to his parishioners. Conversely Sister Aloysius is seen chastising a young and positive Sister James for being too tolerant in her approach. But her opprobrium is for Father Flynn, a man whose popularity with the boys she turns into a salacious accusation.

They are polar opposites within Catholicism and the embodiment of all that they represent. The inevitable clash is brought to fever pitch when she decides the one thing to be done to improve the situation and ensure her way of stricture and iron fist discipline is to show the “perverted” character the door. The furnace of emotions are superbly played out by Dolan and Spruell, she a searing contradiction with no definitive answers and he an idealist whose empathy and compassion hide an inner uncertainty. The accusation is left hanging, we doubt both, . Such dilemmas and dichotomies continue to trouble the contemporary Catholic Church.

The other roles are played by Rebecca Scroggs (Mrs Muller, mother of the boy Flynn is accused of behaving inappropriately with) and Jessica Rhodes (Sister James), both very convincing. An engrossing ninety minute drama (no interval), deftly directed by Lia Williams that fully deserves a London transfer.

The Winston Machine (New Diorama Theatre) is an interesting, fragmented meditation on the UK’s relationship with its own past. Becky is a directionless millennial, escaping from the dull reality of her boring life and loveless relationship by scrolling Instagram looking at old crushes and cat photos, and dreaming of her grandparents, who met and fell in love during the height of the Blitz. Complicating this fantasy is her controlling and neurotic dad, who’s own memories of Becky’s grandpa paints a different picture, not of a war hero but a fragile veteran, made weak and cruel by the trauma of war.

As the play unfolds, questions are raised about what wartime nostalgia really represents, and how the British state has used it to manufacture consent for a cruel, stifling and increasingly fascistic nation state. The final 10 minutes are a nightmarish journey through Britain reimagined as a haunted house, haunted by the spectre of nationalism and a leering, looming Winston Churchill. As is to be expected of the Kandinsky theatre company, the play is gently playful with the forms it employs to tell its story, incorporating dance, physical theatre, music (both performed and played over the PA), and both naturalistic and non-naturalistic dialogue. All three performers are astonishingly deft at conveying the different roles they embody over the course of the play, and the rapid shifts in form and content, and sudden yo-yoing from past to present were enough to hold the attention of my millennial internet-addled brain (something I share with Becky).

 

Doubt – A Parable – www.cft.org.uk

The Winston Machine – www.newdiorama.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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