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A CurtainUp London Review
Be Near Me
The plot focuses on Father David Anderton (Ian McDiarmid), an Oxford-educated priest of refined tastes and repressed sensibilities. Posted to the fictional, isolated town of Dalgarnock in Ayrshire, he finds himself living among a community savaged by closed factories and unemployment. Outcast and lonely, he befriends two tearaway teenagers with disastrous results.
Ian McDiarmid is incredibly sympathetic as the liminal priest, combining a supreme presence with a subtle performance. Enjoying fine wine and classical music, McDiarmid suggests that this character is a dilettante in sensual pleasure. Nevertheless, underneath the surface of sophistication, his life is crippled by loss and unreconciled tragedy. Unable to translate his own experiences into empathy for his hardened parishioners, he is instead drawn towards the sheer irresponsibility and unequivocal perspectives of the teenagers. This outlet for his essential loneliness is of course hideously misjudged. Providing the community with an opportunity to express their barely concealed mistrust of the priest, the fallout also uncovers his tendency to embrace a martyr scenario through his sense of aimless guilt.
Executed by an accomplished cast, there is a strong ensemble of supporting characters. In particular, Blythe Duff is excellent as the sharp-tongued, plain-speaking housekeeper Mrs Poole, played with indomitable integrity. Colette O'Neil is Father David's populist novelist of a mother, both glamorous and pragmatic. Richard Madden and Helen Mallon are the intrepidly rebellious adolescents who corrupt the priest but who are also victims of the town's deprivation. In an unforgiving portrayal of modern teenagers, their communication is dominated by expletives, hip hop and simplistic, uncompromising politics.
As well as these richly delineated characters, the production conveys a firm impression of locality and the geographical desolation clearly reflects the spiritual. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the expert direction of the National Theatre of Scotland's John Tiffany, whose impressive credits include the acclaimed Black Watch.
With tall rusted, corrugated metal boards forming an intimidating backdrop, there is a strong sense of the parochial, enclosed and ever-observant community. The cast sit at the back of stage watching the action on wooden church chairs. A quantity of music is carefully interwoven into the production, ranging from traditional Scottish songs to Ulster ballads, and from Catholic hymns to The Beach Boys.
The remarkable aspect of Be Near Me is the restraint of the drama, which is all the more laudable considering how the inflammatory subject could easily have been handled in a tabloid-style, melodramatic manner. Instead we have a poised, nuanced drama which shirks easy answers or judgemental conclusions. Never far from the inner vein of elegiac sadness, this admirable, serious play explores the nature of disgrace, penitence and regret with a healthy dose of complex humanity.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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