Sheila Atim’s twentieth century-inspired composition adds an eerie ethereal atmosphere to the lofty space, a sanctitude for Sister Aloysius (Stella Gonet) and the teachers at her church school. Aloysius is a matron of the olden days, a stern hand to keep children and staff members alike in line. Gonet immediately strikes with a sharp, no nonsense attitude and a darkly comedic, suspicious nature to match. Five minutes in to a combination of John Patrick Shanley’s purposeful script with Chè Walker’s acute eye and we are transported. It’s exactly the kind of unrelenting impetus that makes Doubt, A Parable such powerful work.
Shanley’s 2005 play is no stranger to critical acclaim – four Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize no less. But this doesn’t seem to faze Walker, who stamps his vision and authority onto the stage with power and fervour. There is a transcendental contribution that glows from PJ McEvoy’s set and Tim Lutkin’s lighting, the overall concept adding to the reverence of Shanley’s words and subtext that every actor pays homage to. An initial nervousness from the performers may seem off-putting, some lines getting scrambled and caught in the tense web that Shanley weaves. But all this adds to the edgy feeling – as doubt creeps in, all is not well with Father Brendan Flynn (Jonathan Chambers) and how he favours certain young boys in his care.
The duality of light and shade in Doubt, A Parable is one of the true highlights that all involved manage to eke out of Shanley’s poignant text. Even when suspicions are flared and feathers are ruffled, Sister Aloysius (Gonet), Father Flynn (Chambers) and young, naïve teacher Sister James (Clare Latham) exhibit varying strands of humour. The laughter is uncomplicated and to the point, a striking contrast to the deep-set complexities surrounding race, companionship between adult & child and sense of propriety that cut through this show with purpose and meaning. In a time when the patriarchy close ranks for protection, it’s only right that Sister Aloysius (Gonet) feels the need to upset the apple cart, despite being a deep-set follower of certain other rules and traditions in the education system.
As Doubt, A Parable progresses, the clash off wits between these two titans divides the audience – there is no way until right near the end to know who is in the right. Shanley forces us to question our own perceptions, ones warped by modern day events that cause us to look at a relationship between man and child with instant dislike. At times, it’s a witch hunt; at others, a crusade. As powerful and sustaining a bond as certainty, doubt worms its way through us all with delicious inevitability.
But then, a parent is called in. Mrs Muller (Jo Martin) enters the discussion surrounding her son, the first and only black child at the school. Martin has an erudite observance marred by a traditionalist blind eye. The topic of sexual preference and the ability to be able to choose is flippantly thrown into the foray, but lands with such power as to stun and silence the rest of the room for this singular dialogue. Martin has one scene – it explodes with such a force, it captivates us from the first utterance. Suddenly we shift our support and the change in direction is palpable. Just when we think that Doubt, A Parable has too many layers to wrap our heads around, Shanley effortlessly throws in one more and leaves us reeling.
Doubt, A Parable is a production with near-flawless execution. From Latham’s disarming, naïve charm, through Chambers’ passionate denial to Gonet’s unshakeable conviction, Walker feeds us a visual that constantly raises the bar throughout. We end without knowing whether any crime was ever committed, but what we do learn is that suspicion and doggedness overlook factual analysis. Sometimes a gut reaction is sufficient to drive in that wedge of doubt and shatter any rationality we may possess. Shanley’s script hits us with layer after layer of beautifully crafted text and the actors add their substantial voices to an already powerful narrative.
Director: Chè Walker
Writer: John Patrick Shanley
Design: PJ McEvoy; Tim Lutkin (lighting); Josh Robins (sound)
Composer: Sheila Atim
Cast: Stella Gonet; Jonathan Chambers; Jo Martin; Clare Latham
Doubt, A Parable plays Southwark Playhouse until 30 September 2017. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.