first night


Rebecca Mackinnon examines THIS Theatre Company's take on the Pulitzer Prize winning "Doubt"


Pulling off a show in a week is no mean feat. Almost anyone who has done theatre in Durham can attest to this, and it’s not easy and generally not much fun. THIS Theatre Company’s theatrical version of the Oscar-nominated film and Pultizer Prize-winning Doubt in the Assembly Rooms (cast last Sunday) was, then, indubitably an ambitious project.
On the whole, I was impressed. The set, though a little crowded, was conceptually and aesthetically attractive, and in some ways the lack of space added to a vague sense of claustrophobia throughout. The lighting was nicely controlled, particularly in Father Flynn’s sermons. The attention to detail in both the office and the garden added much to the world; however, the stained glass, though impressive, was too gaudy to fit in with the dour office, and while the looming presence of the windows throughout the play may have been taken as a conceptual hint at the church’s hypocrisy/overbearing nature/ritualistic flamboyance etc etc, it in fact seemed somewhat out of place.
The chemistry between the actors was strong, and the casting meant that vocally the two women complimented each other particularly well. Stevie Martin as Sister Aloysius was a forbidding character – her offhand coldness was well controlled, rather than caricatured, and was interspersed with moments of honest and piercing eye contact. Her fierce determination was for the most part very calm, meaning that her furious explosion at Flynn towards the end was all the more powerful. However, her physicality was inconsistent. At times, a tremor appeared in her hands – whether directed or subconscious, this could have developed into a very nice character trait – age and anxiety giving an otherwise deeply unsympathetic woman a subtle vulnerability – but it appeared too infrequently to have a very profound effect on the audience. I also felt that at times she took real care to control her physical age, while at others her movements became too fast and fluid, negating the point of the obvious delicacy with which she had just lowered herself into a chair, for example. Despite this, it was a compelling performance – her stage presence and authority are undeniable.
Her young novice, Sister James, played by Kate Hunter, was a suitable foil for Martin’s ferocity. Another unsympathetic character (or is it just me who finds James fickle and simpering?), Hunter conveyed the impressionable young woman with a lovely sense of an existential crisis trickling over into hysteria. She was all wide-eyed innocence, and those wide eyes were glazed with a look of naive morality. The character was well-defined – her eventual outburst to Aloysius showed a nice tremulous and mouse-like bravery, immediately and easily squashed; her attack was abandoned in an appropriately timorous sputter. However, much of her dialogue felt stilted. Her accent was excellent, but at times her lines felt scripted rather than truly spontaneous. Possibly this approach hinted at James’ ability to think before speaking, and personal modesty in front of superiors, but this was not fully explored and hindered the pace slightly. With more time (how much easier to say than do) however, this could have been developed into a really lovely performance, and despite my criticisms, Hunter has a distinct magnetism that drew the audience in and forced us to care for her character.
Adam Usden as Father Flynn was charismatic, and created the central ambiguity surrounding his character with subtlety and intelligence. Occasionally – mostly during the sermons – the accent impaired Usden’s honesty as an actor, and he wasn’t always convincing as the orator he is described as elsewhere in the play (again, I feel this may have been an issue of time constraint), but his dialogue, with Martin in particular, was snappy and powerful. A moment to be noted is during the scene of Flynn’s accusation by Aloysius – upon realising the true motive for his invitation to her office, Usden’s entire physicality changed. I became aware of an understated but very real tension. The hazy morality of the character was clearly defined – on the one hand, his final actions of the play speak of guilt, while on the other, his final conversation with Sister James was touchingly genuine, and Usden played this moment with true desperation. Whether he is desperate to escape conviction or purely to defend a blameless reputation is up for the audience to decide, and Usden gave us the space to decide ourselves, neither being indecisive about his feelings towards the character, nor leading us to a bias in either direction.
Directorially, I felt that most of the decisions were very good. Movement about the stage was nicely controlled, and the placing of Flynn between the two nuns in the accusation scene created an attractively balanced tableau; the image of Flynn against the imposing church backdrop was another striking symbol. However, Mrs Muller (Shana Dalley) was acting solely in profile to the audience, which seemed a hindrance. During Dalley’s scene with Martin, we hardly saw her face, which meant that the impact of her reaction to the allegations involving her son was almost entirely lost. It seemed a shame to point this moment upstage.
Overall, I was very entertained. My only general critique would be that the actors all slow down in their speech. Some of the dialogue was lost and in a play so focused on the veracity of the spoken word this was occasionally a minor problem. However, the performances were good, and will only get better through the run; the fiercely clever script was intelligently approached. Worth seeing, and it will keep you thinking long after leaving the theatre.

22 October 2009

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
Our theatre that speaks for itself

DST is proud to be supported by: PwC