HARRIDAN OR HEROINE..?
The feminist “Bechdel Test” for fiction says that there must be conversations between two women which are not about men. John Patrick Shanley’s tight Pulitzer winner (2005) passes spectacularly, being set in a small convent school in the Bronx in 1964. An innocent hopeful young Sister James faces up stern Sister Aloysius : a principal so fiercely doctrinal that she thinks Frosty the Snowman is heretical paganism. But once updates about Class 8 are done with, they actually are discussing a man, though not romantically. This is the priest, dashing young Father Flynn who plays basketball with the kids and delivers daring sermons about the need for doubt in faith.
Sister Aloysius doesn’t like him: when the young teacher confides that he has befriended a vulnerable 12 year old, the only black child in the school and seen him alone, she suspects what, with real-life retrospection, we all do. In a tight 90 minutes, on an elegantly simple stained-glass floor with us ranged around as if at a boxing-match, doubt and suspicion play out in a duel between the sour, savvy old nun and the priest. Who may or may not be guilty – Shanley wants us not to know. Certainly his cuddlier, informal, post-Vatican-2 approach makes him appeal strongly to the younger nun, warning “There are people who will go after your humanity, kill kindness in the name of virtue”.
With a very sharp Stella Gonet as the merciless, but personally tormented principal, Che Walker’s production is often breath-holdingly tense, more indeed than the film with Meryl Streep was. The first spontaneous exit-round of applause was for Jo Martin as the black boy’s mother, a bulwark of dignity just glad to have him “safe” in a decent school with prospects and flatly refusing to help rock the boat . The authentic voice of 1960’s minority pragmatism speaks in her shocking words “You accept what you gotta accept and you work with it…maybe my son IS that way..Let him have him then. It’s just till June”.
That plays ironically against Sr.Aloysius’ refusal to accept the limitations of her own status, all too familiar to us 1960s convent girls who well remember how in rigid Catholic authority the callowest young priest held patriarchal authority over even the wisest veteran Mother Superior. “There are parameters” says the principal bitterly “which protect him and hinder me”. After the real abuses uncovered in Boston, Ireland and elsewhere over past decades, many a Catholic nun who didn’t blow the whistle will wince at that. Yet in Gonet’s uncompromising performance the curmudgeonly, bitter Sister Aloysius is no saint herself.
So is he guilty? It is by disingenuous manoeuvre that the nun finds victory, and we are not permitted to know. But Jonathan Chambers as the priest offers enough clues to make us uneasy. It is not just in choleric outbursts and Shanley’s lines (who, in full innocence, answers a straight accusatory question with “Did YOU never do anything wrong?”) but also in a certain flirtatiousness in his basketball training scene. But maybe he is just suffering from the now endemic suspicion caused by real priestly abusers. It feels timely, uncomfortable, and riveting: a worthy revival. So much sanctimony has veiled horrible crimes that for all our distaste we’re right alongside Gonet when he pleads “Where is your compassion?” and she snaps, a heroic harridan “Nowhere YOU can get at it!”.
box office 020 7407 0234 southwarkplayhouse.co.uk to 30 Sept