Many will know John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 parable from the Oscar-nominated film adaptation with towering performances by Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. This taut production walks out from under its long shadow to dazzle with its own invention.
Father Flynn (Sam Spruell) has been seen alone with 12-year-old new boy Donald Muller in a school governed by nuns. Altar wine has been drunk. The principal, Sister Aloysius (Monica Dolan), is sure some wrongdoing must have occurred between the priest and the boy and so begins her campaign to unearth the truth and take Flynn down.
Shanley’s script harkens back to a 1960s Catholic corner of the Bronx in New York but like all good parables, its story feels both timeless and more timely than ever, its ideological arguments speaking to our world of social media silos and Punch and Judy political debates.
In a production directed by Lia Williams, intention and truth stay opaque – it is not only the Sister’s tyranny of certitude that is complicated but also the Father’s silver-tongued sermonising on doubt. Is she smoking out the truth or clinging to absolutes in a fast-changing world? Is he mobilising arguments in an effort to escape blame? Each character’s cards are played close to their chest and the performances elevate themselves beyond any comparisons with the film.
Dolan brings an unsettling humour and swagger to her role. She is not a likable character – and not as seemingly reasonable as the Father – but that does not make her position wrong. “It is my job to outshine the fox,” she says, and she could be Miss Marple in a habit – gimlet-eyed, ever suspicious, performing Catholic duty to the letter and seeing heresy even in Frosty the Snowman.
There is something magnificently rebellious about Dolan’s portrayal: she is never going to win against a “man in a robe”, says Mrs Muller when she visits the school to talk about her son’s apparent abuse. But the Sister squares up to a patrician church and its nakedly patriarchal power structures, even as Flynn pulls rank, telling her what women can’t do in the church and threatening to get her fired.
Spruell is equally magnificent, by turns beseeching, vulnerable, explosive and entitled, at once both victim and arch manipulator who talks to schoolboys about making sure to keep their nails clean, as if appearance is all. “Children need warmth,” he says, and the drama’s ground constantly shifts between his truth and hers.
Their confrontations are bare-teethed and full of Pinteresque savagery, while the two ancillary characters, Sister James (Jessica Rhodes) and Mrs Muller (Rebecca Scroggs) bring added moral complications and controlled, compelling performances.
Joanna Scotcher’s extraordinary set is bleached of colour, almost Amish in its starkness, and has a gothicism that emanates from a gigantic cross created out of slivers of cross-hatched light against a wall of thunderous black. In an almost mischievous touch, there is a single bare-branched tree that could be from the forgotten landscape of Waiting for Godot.
The lack of an interval makes the play all the more powerful, without seeming too hurtling. Actors pace themselves but sustain every moment of dramatic tension.
The grey gulf between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn’s entrenched positions is where the audience are left to swim. The play leaves us, unnervingly, in that place of doubt.