Directed by Dino Dimitriadis
Apocalypse Theatre in association with Red Line Productions
Old Fitz Theatre
129 Dowling Street, Woolloomooloo
Season: 10 May – 3 June
The influx of cases of child abuse and sexual assault occurring within the church has cast aspersions over its leadership. Whether you attribute the magnitude of this abuse to systematic misuse of power, a consequence of 'celibate' priests or to one of the other various reasons proposed to explain the vast injustice, it is very clear that there is something rotten in the system. Shanley's play Doubt: A Parable deals excellently with a picture of alleged abuse, engaging with the personal trepidation in clutching at the truth when shrouded with doubt. Dimitriadis’ production strikes sensitive chords with gravity, nuance and good humour, making for a fascinating show.
Sister James is a relatively new teacher at a Catholic school, enthusiastic and unjaded by the world. Sister Aloysius is the school's matriarch: cold, pragmatic, and wily to the ways of naughty students. Father Flynn is the school's new priest, taking a creative and warm-hearted approach in his sermons and in his relationship to the children. Of course, this makes him an instant subject of suspicion to Sister Aloysius. It isn't long before Sister James observes some questionable behaviour and Sister Aloysius is convinced that Father Flynn is in some way abusing the first black student to attend the school, Donald Muller.
Shanley's play triumphs in its ambiguity, open for the interpretation of the director, actors, and the show's audience. Dimitriadis' production elucidates a range of themes with unsettling precision, engaging with themes of power, religion, faith, race and sexuality. Prior to seeing this production, I had always envisaged Sister Aloysius to be so cold hearted and blinded by her resistance to warmth and open mindedness within Catholicism that she is driven almost to a point of irrationality in her perception of Father Flynn. I was pleasantly surprised by Belinda Giblin's take on the role, approaching her with compassion and humanity in spite of her matronly tone. I think this is greatly aided by her expert grasp of humour in the piece, making the audience laugh with lines I had never before realised were funny. As much as the character might hold attitudes that I disagree with, Giblin makes her relatable, she shows us that she truly cares for her students and will fight for their protection, and this rouses respect. Damian de Montemas makes for a charismatic Father Flynn, and yet also reveals darker undertones that shed doubt on his innocence. For a large portion of the play I felt convinced through subtle hints that Father Flynn's conduct was not wholly appropriate. It would be interesting to hear other people's responses in terms of his innocence, as I felt that the production seemed to be pointing us towards taking a very critical stance of figures in power. This is very reasonable given the vast examples of abuse and yet felt to me as if reducing the ambiguity of the work.
Matilda Ridgway is wonderfully cast as Sister James with an ethereal naivety about her, and yet a touch of stubbornness so as not to be trampled over by Giblin as Sister Aloysius. We as the audience walk with Ridgway, vacillating in our understanding of the truth and wrestling with doubts, both in the physical circumstances, and in the spiritual. Charmaine Bingwa is impeccable as Mrs Muller, driving home the gravity of the situation and illustrating the unsettling ability to turn a blind eye. This to me is the most artful performance of the production. Bingwa captures the dubious predicament of Mrs Muller and her son, allowing us to understand that she will allow possible abuse of her child to continue because of her love for him.
Shanley’s play is a masterpiece and engages you in uncertain terrain, navigated with ambiguous evidence of wrongdoing, gut instinct, and faith. Dimitriadis’ production grapples with such uncertainties, warming the audience with hearty comedy and chilling the audience with the possible severe consequences of an unproven reality. Sometimes we need parables to make better sense of this world – short made up stories that teach us a lesson. This is an important parable with which we should grapple.