NEXT WEEK at the Town Hall Theatre sees the west of Ireland premiere of John Patrick Shanley’s powerful play Doubt: a Parable.
Doubt is set in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, a time when the Roman Catholic Church was beginning to change in the wake of Vatican II. Sister Aloysius, the school principal, takes matters into her own hands when she suspects the charismatic young priest Fr Flynn of improper relations with one of the schoolchildren.
The play poses a troubling question: Is Fr Brendan Flynn, the forward-looking priest inappropriately involved with a 12-year-old boy? Or does that allegation spring from the suspicious mind of Sr Aloysius, an ageing, dour, disciplinarian?
What makes Doubt so fascinating is its many unexpected twists and turns. When you arrive at the end, you have more questions than answers – more doubt than proof. First staged in 2004, Doubt went on to run for more than 500 performances on Broadway, winning both a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. In 2008, it was made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
This new Town Hall staging, co-produced with Decadent Theatre Company and Cork’s Everyman Theatre, is directed by Andrew Flynn and features stalwart actor Bríd Ní Neachtain in the role of Sr Aloysius.
You will tell me what you have done
A native of County Galway, Ní Neachtain was a long-time member of the Abbey where her many notable roles included Rose in the premiere production of Dancing at Lughnasa and appearances in milestone plays such as Tom McIntyre’s The Great Hunger, Marina Carr’s The Mai, and Sebastian Barry’s Boss Grady’s Boys. During an afternoon break in rehearsals at the Town Hall, she took time out to talk about her role in Doubt and her career to date.
She began by recalling how her passion for theatre began at school in An Spidéal and how she served her Abbey apprenticeship as an assistant stage manager.
“I always wanted to be an actor,” she declares. “I did a speech and drama diploma in secondary school in Cólaiste Naoimh Mhuire in Spiddal. There was a nun there who loved plays and encouraged me in it.
“Then I got a job in the Abbey as ASM and I was suddenly in this huge institution and learning by watching older actors work and it was a fantastic learning experience and it was only later when I started to get a little experience that I realised what a learning curve that was, it was better than any acting school.
“I worked with fantastic actors like Maureen Toal, Joan O’Hara, Siobhan McKenna and to this day if I have a problem with a line I’ll ask myself how would they approach that line.”
While notching up roles in plays by the likes of Brian Friel, Tom Murphy, and Bernard Farrell, Ní Neachtain also made her mark in challenging works by Tom McIntyre and Marina Carr.
“With Tom it was a totally different way of working because it was more imagistic than text-based,” she recalls. “And Marina is always on the edge, there is a lot happening in her plays, a lot of text and a lot of digging for an actor to do. I’m very proud of those collaborations.”
While establishing her reputation on the Dublin stage, Ní Neachtain has frequently returned to the west to act in both theatre and television. She has worked extensively with An Taibhdhearc, appearing there in Moonfish Theatre’s Irish language version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.
For An Taibhdhearc she also notably appeared in Cré Na Cille, for which she was nominated for an Irish Times/ESB Award for Best Actress in 2003. In the feature film version of Cre Na Cille, directed by Robert Quinn for TG4/Telegael, she was the central character Caitriona. For this role she was nominated for a Best Actress Award in the Irish Film and Television Awards 2008.
She also featured in Ros na Run and in the recent TG4 series, Rasai Na Gaillimhe. “It’s important for me to come back and act here,” she declares. “I’m a Galway woman. I love it here because you’re playing to your own which is a great thrill for me.”
I have doubts. I have such doubts
Doubt is Ní Neachtain’s third time working with director Andrew Flynn, following his productions of Juno and the Paycock and Christian O’Reilly’s Here We Are Again Still.
“Andrew is a great actor’s director,” she enthuses. “For an actor what’s important is the digging – what’s behind the line, what’s your motivation - and he’s two steps ahead of you all the time and that’s important. I get frustrated with directors who are two steps behind. And with Andrew there is always a lovely atmosphere in rehearsal room that allows us to bring a character to life.”
Ní Neachtain goes on to talk about the character of Doubt’s Sr Aloysius. The nun is a stern traditionalist and could easily be seen as the villain opposing the progressive young priest but her character is more nuanced than that.
“You’ve got to give the complete picture,” Ní Neachtain asserts. “It would be easy to go down the road of ‘the baddie’, but why is she like this? She truly believes what she is doing is right. They’re in a working class community in the Bronx and you’ve got be tough and on top of those kids.
“She is also in her fifties and while Vatican II has come in she belongs to the old school. Her and the priest are two opposite sides and the play is about the clash of those opposites. It’s not so much that she dislikes him it’s just that he is everything she is not.
“It’s a great play, one minute you think the priest is guilty and the next you think that Sr Aloysius is wrong. She’s tough but she feels she has to be. She is protecting the kids and she knows within the hierarchy of the church the priest is her superior so she is actually very brave to take him on in the first place.”
Fr Flynn is portrayed by Diarmuid de Faoite and the cast is completed by Seona Tully and Jacqueline Boatswain. Doubt runs at the Town Hall from Tuesday February 21 to Saturday 25 at 8pm nightly.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie