Monday, November 06, 2006

REVIEW: Doubt (The Abbey, Dublin)

Doubt is a period drama in more ways than one. John Patrick Shanley's Broadway hit is set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in the 1960s, in a musty, priest-revering world. But the play's approach is also – on the surface at least – rather antique, with its stock clerical characters who might have arrived on the Abbey stage hot foot from The Bells of Saint Mary's.

If, for some reason, your own personal tells for a paedophile are a sweet tooth, long nails and a habit of shouting at crows, then a conviction can't be far away. For Fr. Flynn (Aidan Kelly) exhibits all of these traits, as well as a swaggering arrogance and great fondness for the patriarchal aspects of the Catholic church, even as he professes a new, more open and approachable clergy.

If Doubt were a film (which it soon will be) then Fr. Flynn would certainly be guilty of every charge laid at his door by Sister Aloysius. Or would he? Because this Sister Aloysius (played with impressive restraint by Brid Brennan), well, she's no saint neither. For her, any display of passion – even a passion for teaching – is tantamount to a sin. Human warmth must be extinguished, or at the very least hidden away, in the name of order.

If Shanley's drama offered nothing more than two characters that no audience could love, and a sweet novice (Gemma Reeves) to be ping-ponged between them, then it would fail. The writing, however, never allows either side of the argument to gather rhetorical steam, never mind claim victory.

This dangling resolution is enough to lift the play out of Bing Crosby territory, but the notion that contemporary substance must consist in uncertainty is less than satisfying, as sure-footedly as the playwright arrives at that conclusion.

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