The scintillating horror of Doubt

Unrelenting: Sister Aloysius (Fiona Ramsay) and Sister James (Janna Ramos-Violante) hold moral authority in a place of worship. Photograph by Germaine de Larche, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

Unrelenting: Sister Aloysius (Fiona Ramsay) and Sister James (Janna Ramos-Violante) hold moral authority in a place of worship. Photograph by Germaine de Larche, courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

What would you do if you suspected something appalling was happening in your midst, where an innocent child’s well-being was at stake, and the issue was a disaster you think you might have the power to avert? This is the kind of dilemma embraced in James Cuningham’s stage version of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer prize-winning play Doubt: A Parable.

It is not so much the 2008 film version featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep that this play evokes, but Jean-Jacque Annaud’s 1986 interpretation of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, in its engagement with the blind and stubborn faith of the establishment, played with unforgettable vehemence by Feodor Chaliapin Jr as Jorge and Volker Prechtel as Malachia, the priests who guard the sanctity of the library.

It is this fierce and dark tone created by the stylised set in juxtaposition with severe costumes and utterly honed performances by Fiona Ramsay and Janna Ramos-Violante that embraces the moral contradiction of the play that will haunt you. Ramsay, in particular, embodies the sense of a die-hard old nun without a glimmer of light in her outlook; terrifying to contemplate, but magnetic to behold. Her slight frame embodies something so massive and catastrophic clutching so tightly to the one-upmanship of religious sway, it is unforgettable.

Ramos-Violante is the younger nun, the foil to the tale. Opposite Ramsay’s Sister Aloysius, her Sister James is small fry, a woman easily threatened by the authority of church hierarchy in a misogynist world.

The prescience of this work, set as it is on the cusp of a kind of collapse of innocence of Western culture – just after the assassination of President JF Kennedy – cannot be overlooked, in our world of increasing religious fundamentalism, but also one of increasing social transparency, which sees the unravelling of so much horror that traditionally happened behind closed doors – and where the presentation of young boys and priests in the same sentence leads one to believe the worst.

And yet, unlike Aisling Walsh’s Song for a Raggy Boy (2003) which confronts the same issue, the subtlety in Cuningham’s direction and the collaborative energies of the cast, is almost more devastating, offset as it is by an utterly sterling cameo performance by Mwenya Kabwe as the child’s mother, which is pivotal to the whole work.

Doubt is a cleanly composed, terrifying piece of muscular, unpretentious theatre, unforgivably tight in its use of language, but also completely developed and three-dimensional in how it describes the dilemma. You don’t leave the environment armed with a healthy dollop of homophobia and self-righteous hatred of the establishment of the church education system. But you do leave in an emotional state of turbulence that might keep you awake.

  • Doubt: A Parable, written by John Patrick Shanley is directed by James Cuningham and designed by Tina Le Roux (lighting), Vaughn Sadie (set) and Margo Fleish (costumes). It is performed by Mwenya Kabwe, James MacEwan, Janna Ramos-Violante and Fiona Ramsay, at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until August 15. 0118838606 or visit co.za
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