It’s a tantalizing proposition: John Tiffany, helmer of the world-conquering “Black Watch,” teaming with Ian McDiarmid, vet actor and former director of London’s Almeida Theater, on an adaptation of an acclaimed novel by Andrew O’Hagan. If the results are not as explosive as that lineup portends, the National Theater of Scotland production of “Be Near Me” is nevertheless an absorbing, thoughtful drama, as befits a story of loneliness, self-deception and misplaced sexual desire. It also recalls the knotty theatrical arguments of Ibsen, Shaw or Miller.
Published in 2006, O’Hagan’s novel concerns an English Catholic priest, Father David Anderton (McDiarmid), who takes on the parish of the fictional Dalgarnock, an economically deprived town in Ayrshire in southwest Scotland. In his late 50s, Anderton has never recovered from the accidental death of his homosexual lover when they were students at Oxford. Paying visits to the local school, he projects his unfulfilled desire onto 15-year-old Mark (Richard Madden), an ill-educated youth with a love of drink, drugs and fast living. After sharing a night of hedonistic excess, the priest makes a drunken pass at the boy and finds himself charged with sexual assault.
The material is there for a debate, in the manner of David Mamet’s “Oleanna” and David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” that explores the gray area between acceptable behavior and criminality.
Anderton’s actions are ill advised, inappropriate and foolish — and certainly immoral for a man of the cloth — but he has some justification in his refusal to regard his quick drunken kiss as an assault. The reaction of the community, which labels him a “peedo” (slang for pedophile) and sets fire to his house, is disproportionate to his misguided but ultimately quite human action.
In performance, however, this narrative comes across as just one of a number of oppositional debates. Although it builds to a second-act courtroom scene, the production does not trade on our sense of justice in the manner of “The Winslow Boy,” “Twelve Angry Men” or “The Crucible,” even if the community reaction carries echoes of the hysteria in Miller’s play.
Rather than sparking off a did-he/didn’t-he drama, the central encounter between Anderton and the boy symbolizes a series of broader cultural clashes — the meeting between young and old, English and Scottish, working-class and “posh,” educated and ignorant. And it’s part of O’Hagan’s wider discussion of cultural identity and tribal loyalty, whether it be in the left/right divisions of politics or the Catholic/Protestant distinctions of Christianity.
By punctuating the scenes with sweetly sung hymns better known as violent sectarian chants sung on soccer terraces, Tiffany reinforces the sense of the sharply defined community against which Anderton’s otherness is measured.
Taking the lead role in his own lucid adaptation, McDiarmid (a 2006 Tony winner for “Faith Healer”) adds to the ambiguity by presenting a priest whose attractive qualities — a joie de vivre and a passion for food and drink — are offset by a coquettish, supercilious manner and a tendency to act like a precocious child. We may disapprove of the reactionary forces in the community, but Anderton is hardly an ideal alternative.
The strength of the adaptation lies in its absorbing discussion of these themes but, even with Tiffany’s assured direction on an open stage backed with a wall of corrugated iron, the theatrical energy is muted (and not helped by the unforgiving Palace Theater auditorium).
In addition to McDiarmid’s performance, there are strong turns from Blythe Duff as his housekeeper and Madden and Helen Mallon as his teenage friends; they help to build a production that is quietly satisfying rather than dramatically thrilling.
The play transfers to the Donmar in London later this month.