Flawed Character: The Downfall of a Parish Priest Is Well Staged, but Where Does the Tragedy Lie?
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
Be Near Me
Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Be Near Me takes us to Dalgarnock, a small parish on the Ayrshire coast that doesn't exist but which we get to know very well by the end of the evening. Half its population sings Orange marching songs and half IRA drinking ballads; both halves regard the English with affectionate contempt. Many of the working-age population have never crawled from the scrapheap upon which Margaret Thatcher tossed them. Its youth are boorish but harmless; its elders like a drink but are harmless, too. Formal education is neither here nor there but self-improvement is common. People have a passion for truth-telling and the ancient Scottish art of flyting.
It is into this community, some years before the play starts, that an Oxbridge-educated English priest called David Anderton has been thrown. He is bored by his flock, many of whom nevertheless find they half like this cuckoo in their nest. If he is enthusiastic for any of his parishioners, it is the teenagers whom he teaches part-time. He knows what hip-hop is, joshes with them about their love of Puff Daddy, and can text. Sometimes he takes them to remote beauty spots. He is particularly fond of the boys.
One drunken night a youth called Craig ends up back at the priest's house. Wine is taken, as is Ecstasy. Father David gets quite giddy with the excitement of it all and gives Craig a couple of pecks on the face. "Cut it out," says Craig. "By all means," says David, chagrined. But they fall asleep hand in hand and in the morning are discovered by Mrs Poole, the canny housekeeper who is dying from cancer and feels the priest's neglect acutely. Soon it is all around town. A Vicky Pollard type paints "Peedo" on the church wall. PC McPlod pays a visit. The bishop is not impressed. In an excess of righteous candour, David implicates himself in court. The parish of St Ogilvie, named after a hanged Catholic convert, has, after five centuries, another martyr, at least in David's mind.
And here lies the problem: who among the audience would agree? Rarely have I spent a night in the theatre feeling so unsympathetic to a protagonist. The wimpish sexual assault is nothing next to David's other character failings, mostly minor in themselves but cumulatively damning. Every time a character laid into him, I couldn't think of an effective riposte, and nor could he. …