Abi Morgan explores tensions between faith and science in a fascinating but frustrating new play
The tensions that lie beneath the serene surface of convent life have proved fertile territory for writers and dramatists down the years, from Powell and Pressburger’s psychological horror Black Narcissus to Muriel Spark’s Watergate satire The Abbess of Crewe. Playwright Abi Morgan, fresh from her success as the creator of TV drama The Hour, also attempts to mine the dark potential of the cloistered community with a play exploring the tensions between faith and science, the ageing process and the slow demise of the convent way of life.
Morgan’s play is based on a real-life study of around 700 nuns, which looked at how the controlled lifestyle of this self-contained group impacted on their health. The scientist at the heart of this play, Dr Richard Garfield, hopes to establish why certain nuns develop Alzheimer’s, but finds his objectivity thrown off course when he strikes up a friendship with the mercurial Sister Ursula (a fantastic performance from Maureen Beattie), anointed successor to current Mother Superior, Sister Miriam.
It’s a fascinating premise, but watching Morgan’s play is a frustrating experience. The sequences in which Garfield (a stumbling, hesitant performance from Nicholas Le Prevost) waxes passionately about the brain’s functions and development feel like an interminable piece of research dropped wholesale into the middle of the text rather than something that serves the drama of the central relationship. Too much of the action happens offstage between scenes with the result that the audience is made to play catch-up through wordy, expositional passages rather than watching the action develop before our eyes.
Where the play really comes alive is in the relationships between the nuns, particularly the quasi mother/daughter dynamic between the lively, questioning Ursula and Miriam (Colette O'Neil), whose own loss of her once formidable intellectual powers mirrors the decline of the holy order and Ursula’s gradual loss of her faith. The final portion of the play does draw together the various threads in a dynamic and moving conclusion, but some rather more ruthless editing would undoubtedly have allowed the play’s provocative themes to shine through more clearly.
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until Sat 12 Nov