Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Opened 26 January, 2009

Scotland has experienced enough religious strife on its own account, so I have always been rather puzzled as to why, particularly on the west coast, the folk echo the sectarian tribalisms of my native Northern Ireland, and do so with a surprising virulence. Ian McDiarmid’s stage adaptation brings these bigotries out of the background of Andrew O’Hagan’s original, with Republican and Orange songs sung between scenes, and so turns the play into a shifting tapestry of moral absolutisms.
When David Anderton, the fiftysomething Anglo-Scots priest in a small Ayrshire town, tries to give World Religion classes to his fourth-year Special Needs set, he argues with ineffectual politesse against the fierce Islamophobia of a couple of 15-year-olds in his class. (Tellingly, he later finds himself echoing such a hard line at a dinner party, and pitting contemporary geopolitics against the religious ideals of his fellow priests.) When he begins to keep company out of school with those two students, the absolutes momentarily feel as unsettled as the sea around nearby Ailsa Craig. However, when Anderton allows himself to be so entranced by young Mark as to join him in a night of alcohol, hash and Ecstasy culminating in a brief, rejected kiss, the juggernaut of child-abuse hysteria begins rolling. These are the several great ideological engines of the world of O’Hagan’s story, in the face of which the longings for intimate companionship of an unworldly man, too fey for his own good, cannot but be mown down. The background story of Anderton’s unfulfilment, a constant pulse in the novel, is here sown in a few seemingly offhand allusions which are then all brought together within half a minute or so in the second act, without any of the too-usual sense of contrivance or portentousness.
McDiarmid’s adaptation is eminently actable, and he acts the part of Anderton with eminent excellence in John Dove’s National Theatre of Scotland production (which after this Donmar run tours Britain until mid-May). He pitches the character’s effete manners well, so that we feel not derision but a pity and an agony for his alienness in this environment. Dove also resists the temptation to go for a conventional courtroom-drama climax: as other characters exaggerate their performances slightly in this segment, lending them a sense of unreality, Anderton’s crippling, misunderstood sincerity comes across all the stronger. The lines of Tennyson which give the play its title sound still and small in such a world.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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