Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
MAUREEN Beattie enters with her hair dripping wet. It's not a conventional way for an actor to come on, still less so when playing a would-be mother superior. As she sets off for a daily swim in the icy waters beyond the convent's brutalist concrete walls, Sister Ursula Mary is not your stereotypical stage nun: someone calls her the "rock star of the ecclesiastical world".
Playwright Abi Morgan, returning to the theatre in between The Hour and The Iron Lady, paints Ursula as garrulous, witty and intelligent - too questioning to live comfortably with a religious life. That she insists on swimming perilously far from dry land is a metaphor for her willingness to stray from the certainties of her faith and venture into the frozen waters of the unknown.
If not faith, she does have a steely dedication, one matched - albeit with less charisma - by Nicholas Le Prevost as a scientist for whom the convent's seclusion, documentation and demographic is ideal for the study of Alzheimer's disease. Like Ursula, he is in it for the long run, motivated not by short-term profit but the slow and steady pursuit of truth. For both of them, their commitment comes at the cost of loneliness.
Given a lively staging by Vicky Featherstone for the Lyceum and the National Theatre of Scotland, the overly wordy play prefers discussion to true dramatic action, but it does a better job than many at dramatising the effects of a degenerative brain disease. For that, no small thanks go to Colette O'Neil who gives a brilliant performance as the elderly Sister Miriam, whose sprite-like energy cannot counter the loss of a once brilliant mind. Beattie's grief-stricken roar makes you shudder as the play becomes a touching lament for the absolute in a volatile world.
© Mark Fisher, 2011 (pic: Richard Campbell)