Whats on Stage, Review, Be Near Me

Don’t go and see “Be Near Me” if you are easily offended or regularly read The News of the World. It is a morally ambiguous, controversial play, which tackles the biggest ideas head on, whilst never offering a judgement or scarcely even an opinion. And it is this lack of moral judgement that is both its strength and weakness.

The play is based on Andrew O’Hagan’s Booker Prize long listed novel and is adapted by and stars Ian McDiarmid. It centres around a priest assigned to a new parish in a deprived Scottish town on the Ayrshire coast. Oxford educated, cultured and foppish, Father David is ill-suited to the post, quickly alienating himself from the people of the town. He carries with him a huge amount of personal baggage, which I won’t expand upon here so as not to spoil the plot, but it tempers his actions and causes him to make a series of decisions that further push him from the town and ultimately to question his faith. He finds solace in his relationship with a young couple from the special needs class of the local school, but this friendship inevitably becomes the catalyst of his downfall.

The adaptation is faithful to the literary origins, the writing is dense and poetic, the development of the friendship between Father David and the children delicately handled and the drawing of the dynamics of the town itself beautifully realised. The play has an intimate, personal quality that draws the audience in; in many ways making us complicit in the actions that later occur. It is this delicacy of writing that makes what is essentially a clichéd premise (a guilt ridden Catholic priest, experiencing a crisis of faith, places himself in an inappropriate position) feel fresh and pertinent. The acting is superb, it feels unfair to single out amongst what is a strong ensemble piece; but Ian McDiarmid is brilliant, whilst Richard Madden as the boy Mark is a revelation.

The play never shirks away from issues, including faith, fear, bigotry, failure, tabloid witch-hunts and the nature of forgiveness and repentance. Where it succeeds beautifully is in the detailed portraits of relationships and the nuances of small town life.

So much so, that when the view of the play expands and takes us into the courtroom it almost feels a betrayal and some of the collusive tension is lost. What is essentially a very personal study of wasted life versus the beauty of potential feels lost amongst the moral issues that surround the core act of the play. I imagine that this is the point, that you are carried along on Father David’s naivety, until it reaches the natural conclusion of criminal prosecution, but the court scenes suddenly felt too open and clinical to me.

That said, it is a complicated and intelligent piece of work, never offering easy answers or judgement, but instead presenting a flawed and interesting lead character, who by the exquisite focus of the script and some fine acting, makes this an extremely worthwhile experience.