21 January 2008 Northings, Hi-Arts Journal

Be Near Me

Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock

IF IAN MCDIARMID had set out to write a play about a priest accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy, there's a strong likelihood it would have turned out like David Harrower's Blackbird or David Mamet's Oleanna.

Those two plays question the black-and-white certainties that underlie newspaper headlines about paedophilia (Blackbird) and sexual harassment (Oleanna), and send the audience home in animated debate about the rights and wrongs of a situation they previously thought was clear-cut.

Be Near Me wades into similarly contentious territory in its story of an English priest, Father David Anderton, who takes on an Ayrshire parish where he becomes unhealthily caught up in the lives of a gang of teenagers. But because McDiarmid's play is based on the novel by Andrew O'Hagan, there's a lot more going on than if he had written a straight "issue" play from scratch.

The story of the priest's debauched evening of drink, drugs and the fumbled kiss that leads to his prosecution is a central strand of the book, but it is only part of O'Hagan's broader meditation on the nature of identity.

The author ensures that Anderton and the tearaway Mark, for whom he develops an impossible crush, could not be more different. There are over 40 years between them; one is Scottish, the other English; one middle-class, the other working-class; one Oxford-educated, the other a virtual drop-out. Add some commentary on the sectarian divide and left-right politics and the story of the priest's misplaced sexual desire becomes part of a complex theme about community, belonging and being adrift in the world.

What this means in John Tiffany's spare, stripped-back staging for the National Theatre of Scotland is a play rich in absorbing debate, but relatively muted in terms of the tense drama stirred up in Blackbird and Oleanna. We are not stirred to condemn or condone the priest even though – or perhaps because – we have been engaged in the to and fro of ideas that precede his downfall.

McDiarmid, best known as the Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars series, takes the lead role himself and does a fine job of capturing Anderton's combination of narcissism and charm. We enjoy being in his presence (which is just as well, seeing as he's hardly off the stage), even though there's something frivolous and untrustworthy about him.

There is excellent support, too, notably from Blythe Duff, giving a strong and poignant turn as the terminally ill housekeeper Mrs Poole, and from Richard Madden as Mark and Helen Mallon as his classmate Lisa.

Yet for all Tiffany's song and dance interludes and the fluidity of his open staging, Be Near Me is less an evening of animated passion than of sober contemplation.

Be Near Me is at the Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 7-11 April 2009, and Perth Theatre, 21-25 April 2009

© Mark Fisher

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