The National Theatre of Scotland teams up with the Donmar Warehouse to stage an adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s novel about a clash of cultures in a small Scottish town.
Topped and tailed by lines from a Tennyson poem, Be Near Me tells the desperately sad story of a man nearing his 60s who long ago lost his way in life and does not have the courage to look for it again.
That man, a priest by the name of Father David Anderton, is played by Ian McDiarmid, who also adapted O’Hagan’s novel for the stage. Educated at Oxford, he has already spent 30 years as a parish priest in England when he is posted to Dalgarnock, a fictional small town in Ayrshire. Once a thriving industrial town, its steel works have closed, unemployment is rife and the working class community resents the influx of immigrants. Anderton is an immigrant of a kind, and his love of wine, books and exotic cooking is just as out of place. The suspicion towards him that simmers under the surface comes to a head when Anderton misjudges a situation and finds himself faced with a charge of sexual assault towards a 15-year-old boy.
McDiarmid’s Anderton is a strangely contradictory character. He is well-read and wears this knowledge with a confidence that at times seems a touch smug. The teachers at the school where he leads assemblies find him patronising, for which Anderton is unapologetic. Knowing the adult community distrusts him, he does not – or cannot – make much attempt to fit in. However he does find a certain acceptance in the teenage population of the town. They also see him as an outsider, but treat him like a curiously exotic pet which, after a time, they come to regard with affection. Anderton, despite his confidence, is also childlike and finds a dangerous kinship with a pair of wayward teens. An ill-advised kiss, fuelled by the memories of a lost love, destroys his position in the town.
Director John Tiffany’s production sees the cast onstage most of the time, sitting on chairs at the back of the stage when they are not in a scene themselves. At times they form a chorus, singing traditional Scottish songs as an integral part of the action. During a wedding scene, they line dance in their seats, to the amusement of the audience.
Of the rest of the cast, Helen Mallon and Richard Madden play the pair of teens whose lives have been shaped by the misfortune of their parents; Colette O’Neil is Anderton’s poised, open-minded mother and successful novelist; and Blythe Duff plays his housekeeper, Mrs Poole, a no-nonsense Scot who wants to better herself and is fired up by her employer’s knowledge.
But for all his learning, Anderton is a naive and cowardly character who has used the priesthood as a shield to protect himself from reality. It is Mrs Poole who is the stronger person, as she faces life head on, ready to take what comes.