At the centre of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 play, Doubt, is a formidable female character for a formidable actor.
Sister Aloysius Beauvier is a deeply conservative nun and the principal of St Nicholas Church School, in New York’s Bronx in 1964. She opposes many uses of modern technology, advises her teachers to be tough and unforgiving on their students, and rallies against taking the “easy way” out of any situation, which includes the use of ball-point pens.
She’s intimidating enough to start with, but when Sister Aloysius senses a threat to the sanctity of her school, she becomes entirely ruthless, with extraordinary cunning and determination.
The role was played on Broadway by the great Cherry Jones, who won a Tony Award for her performance, and then by Meryl Streep in the 2008 film adaptation.
Belinda Giblin, an actor who regularly crafts larger-than-life characters with an unshakeable steeliness, is astonishing in the new Sydney production at the Old Fitz Theatre. She has a great natural feel for the wry comedy of the role, and, in her hands, there’s a real sense that Sister Aloysius enjoys the terror and wonder she strikes into the heart of her opponents.
Her key opponent is Father Flynn (Damien de Montemas), a new priest working at her school, who preaches love, patience and understanding, and is beloved by all of his parishioners. Sister Aloysius is immediately suspicious of the close relationship he’s trying to form with the school students and tells a young nun, Sister James (Matilda Ridgway) to be on the lookout for suspicious behaviour.
Sister James is the polar opposite of Sister Aloysius — soft, kind, innocent and optimistic about the actions and the motivations of the people around her — but she soon spots some “suspicious behaviour”, and becomes an unwilling pawn between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius.
Shanley’s play becomes a battle of wits as Sister Aloysius sets her trap. She wholeheartedly believes Father Flynn has sexually assaulted a young boy named Donald — the first African American student to attend the school — and sets out to prove his guilt.
Sister Aloysius has no proof, but she has her certainty.
There are elements of the play that feel a little clunky and declamatory, but it’s elevated by strong performances and Shanley’s wit. The audience’s allegiances shift across the full 90 minutes of the play, as we’re constantly forced to question our assumptions about the characters on stage.
Director Dino Dimitriadis keeps the tension up for the entire production. Jonathan Hindmarsh’s production design is attractive and imposing, although its division into two distinct spaces results in some slightly awkward blocking in such an intimate space.
Matilda Ridgway delivers a consistent and occasionally very moving performance as the young nun who is clearly out of her depth and trying to find her own space to exist between the two senior staff members. Damien de Montemas is similarly strong as Father Flynn, even if his accent occasionally waivers.
Charmaine Bingwa gets the briefest stage time as Donald’s mother, but has one of the most challenging roles. She brings a perspective to the entire situation which the two nuns have never considered, and poses a difficult and provocative question to the audience — does Sister Aloysius really have Donald’s best interests at heart?
In one sense, Sister Aloysius is repugnant — rude, judgmental, constantly suspicious, and willing to damn a man with no proof. But we also know that corruption and sexual abuse has been rife for decades in the Catholic Church, and that the men in positions of power in that institution have been evading scrutiny and protecting one another for as long as the church has existed.
Sister Aloysius steps out of her assigned position to stand up to an institution to which she has devoted her life, with all the power she can muster. It’s an extraordinary feat to watch played out on stage.