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Be Near Me

On tour until 16 May
Written by Ian McDiarmid

Ian McDiarmid

Last year the National Theatre of Scotland had a massive hit with Black Watch, their visceral dramatisation of that regiment's swansong in Iraq. Amazingly, there's no anti-climax with their current production Be Near Me, an adaptation of Andrew O'Hagan's novel with a title from Tennyson: 'Be near me when my light is low/When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick/And tingle; and the heart is sick, /And all the wheels of being slow'. It's the story of a cultured Oxford-educated priest, David Anderton, who finds himself in a bleak, poor parish on the west coast of Scotland. Ian McDiarmid is the moving spirit behind all this: he adapted the novel, and plays Father David. His brilliant interpretation of such a complex character is enhanced by the stunning ensemble playing of the company, conveying not only individual dilemmas but also comments on Scotland's role within or without the United Kingdom and Europe.

As the play opens Father David is ensconced within the comfortable parochial house, cushioned by his books, art and music. Overhanging the set is the chandelier he's kept with him since his Oxford days as a classical scholar at Balliol. His protection from the outside world is enhanced by his housekeeper, Mrs. Poole, also a misfit in this miserable town. She has aspirations to the wider world: she's interested in Mediterranean cooking, wine and the French language. She serves lettuce soup - 'potage du Père tranquille' - to help Father David through Good Friday's bone-wearying masses, rejoicing that at last there's someone in town to practise her French on and to appreciate her European cuisine. Father David approaches Mrs. Poole with wit and affection, a bond that poignantly increases when later in the play she discovers she's suffering from terminal cancer.

It's when the wider world of the town encroaches on Father David that his problems really start. Reluctantly he gets involved in the parish youth group but gradually becomes more and more involved in trying to better the aspirations and opportunities of these hopeless, under-educated young people. One in particular makes an impression on him. Mark, though inarticulate and ignorant, seems open to new things. The play sensitively explores how Father David strikes up a rapport with Mark that touches his heart and his sexuality. One drunken evening at the parochial house leads inexorably to disaster, their intimacy, albeit innocent, witnessed by the ailing Mrs. Poole. What inevitably follows poses all sorts of questions about faith, nationalism, class and individual redemption.

This is not staged naturalistically, but with each scene watched by other members of the cast, and often with songs. O'Hagan's original intentions are faithfully retained by McDiarmid's stage version. There's a warmth and generosity in the characterisation, and a dignity in the lives of the working classes of the town that might surprise younger generations who only see such people through the distorting prism of reality TV.

Father David is also willing to take on the ever-encroaching forces of political correctness. In a brilliantly funny scene he holds a dinner party for the bishop, a naive curate and an aggressive feminist from the council. In the ensuing clash, the worst insult they can hurl at him is 'English'. This is one of the play's most important themes: a nation once proud to be part of the United Kingdom but now through economic hardship and 'betrayal' by Westminster, bitterly driven towards independence.

The term 'National Theatre' is contentious, with disagreement over what sort of repertoire London's should be presenting. But perhaps the National Theatre of Scotland has got it exactly right? Not tied to expensive buildings, they take to the road to present plays that somehow manage to express the issues of their nation in an immensely perceptive and appealing way.

Judith Elliot