Doubtlessly good

Doubt, St James Cavalier

Sun, Jan 6th 2008, 12:51 Last updated on 6/1/08

Have you ever been unsure of something, and hesitant to believe its veracity or otherwise? It's a horribly uncomfortable feeling, isn't it? We all hate being hesitant, unable to take a decision or make an informed choice because the information available is not as straightforward as we'd like it to be, or perhaps because it's too contradictory or sparse for us to be able to make up our minds.

We begin to question ourselves and our judgement as well as the word and integrity of others and often fall into the trap of trying to catch them out and proving that their intentions are truly as devious and underhanded as we'd suspected, just to confirm that our doubts have a foundation in truth. But the seeds of doubt are resilient and insidious, sending far-reaching roots and allowing their shoots to rear their shaking heads just when you've allowed a false sense of security to lull you into a feeling of self-assurance.

There is, however, no doubt that Masquerade Theatre Company produces good plays, having chosen John Patrick Shanley's eponymous play Doubt to open their theatre season this year. Doubt deals with this most disquieting of emotions by exposing it to the public in some of the negative forms which it can take. The play's script is a challenging one but thanks to some first class direction on the part of Anthony Bezzina, it is kept fast-paced and gripping without losing any of its humanity.

The play is set in a Bronx Catholic school during the Christmas term of 1964 and opens with a sermon where Fr Flynn, ably interpreted by Malcolm Galea, asks the audience: "What do you do when you're not sure?," setting the tone for the uncertainty and suspicion which will begin to unravel the closely knit religious community which runs the parish school. Fr Flynn is a young priest who believes the clergy should make a greater effort to integrate within the community and give the parishioners the feeling that they are part of their extended family. Mr Galea has given us a character that is smooth-talking and apparently likeable to the very end; leaving us adequately perplexed by the doubts and suspicions which arise within us due to the conflicting evidence revealed about him. Monica Attard's Sr Aloysius, on the other hand, is a no-nonsense headmistress who rules

St Nicholas School with a rod of iron, believing firmly that academic performance and good behaviour should never suffer due to emotional attachment and unnecessary mollycoddling.

Sr Aloysius disapproves of Fr Flynn's progressive values and distrusts his chummy relationship with the boys in Year 8, seizing the first opportunity she finds to put him in the wrong. Faye Paris plays Sr James, the enthusiastic and well-meaning new teacher in Year 8 whose sense of fairness and love for teaching are thrown into a downward spiral of worry and guilt by the sense of self-doubt which Sr Aloysius instils in her with her constant reprimands to be more of a distrustful disciplinarian rather than a friend to the children. A very well-executed performance which was sweet without being saccharine.

Sr James is confronted by the headmistress and reports smelling alcohol on Donald Muller's breath. Using this threadbare evidence, Sr Aloysius quickly reaches the disturbing assumption that Fr Flynn has "interfered" with Muller and has in some way molested him. The boy happens to be the school's first black pupil at a time when racial integration was still looked upon suspiciously by many. This means that the play raises such issues as paedophilia (assumed or otherwise) and the way with which we react to it, particularly from a Catholic perspective; as well as racial discrimination and political correctness.

However, the play goes beyond these clear-cut stock themes, as it delves deeper into the human psyche-analysing how the internal conflict which the feeling of doubt sets off in us, is mirrored and fuels the external, interpersonal conflict between the play's characters. British actress Evelyn Duah is the fourth and final character to appear, playing Mrs Muller, Donald's mother. She also adds to the complexity of the situation by giving the audience her point of view when she is brought in to discuss the situation with Sr Aloysius. She supports her son's friendship with Fr Flynn, inappropriate or not, and hints that her son's possible sexual orientation might make matters less serious.

What she wants is for her son to be happy and not suffer the bullying, both sexual and racial, which he'd been subjected to at his previous school. Although Duah's part is not as long as the rest, her performance was excellent. She delivered her lines with crystalline clarity, while maintaining the pathos created by her character's impassioned pleas to Ms Attard's Sr Aloysius, reflecting the difficulty of her social situation both domestically and within the wider community.

When Sr Aloysius decides to see her plan through and confronts Fr Flynn in a battle of wits and wills, demanding an immediate confession and resignation, he refuses and denies any misdemeanour, accusing her of gossip, prejudice and slander. Upon her claim of having evidence, the priest's façade seems to crumble, proving her suspicion to be correct.

In the last scene we learn that he has been transferred to another parish and another school, receiving a promotion in the process. Sr Aloysius tells Sr James that they are rid of him and that he is no longer their problem, but ends the play with the lines: "I have doubts!"

These lines, coupled with the opening question: "What do you do...?" bring us back to the dilemma that there is no certainty in doubt and that often we are at a loss as to what should be done.

Sr Aloysius is not an easy role to play and Ms Attard's interpretation was a tour de force of timing and characterisation: Managing to create a multi-faceted persona with whom we can all identify on some level or other. On the one hand, she may seem dominant, cold, conservative and a bit of a tartar, but on the other hand, we can all sympathise with her very real concern for a child's sexual and moral welfare. It is important to understand that her actions are done out of cautiousness rather than hypocrisy or spite. Sr Aloysius is a formidable woman and Ms Attard's portrayal certainly matched this quality, while revealing the more vulnerable side of her character towards the end when she admits that she has her doubts about the whole matter. Should she have been so callous with poor, presumably innocent Fr Flynn or, on the flip side of the coin, was she irresponsible enough to unleash a monster into another parish? It is up to the audience to try and make up their minds - but I doubt they will. It is a provocative play which challenges our certainties and raises more questions than it answers.

With flawed characters revealing dark human emotions, one thing which was flawless was the production itself - the meticulous attention to detail was evident in every single set dressing and prop. Harry Borg's set was both effective and appropriate, proving that retro can be done artisically and tastefully. The costumes blended effortlessly with the mood and made the setting seem so real that I got the feeling that Sr Aloysius would give me a steely look and tell me to straighten my tie and tuck in my shirt. It was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, a truly enjoyable and commendable performance and thanks to high demand, will be running at St James Cavalier for a further two days, today and tomorrow.