MISTRESS OF NOVICES at the Piccadilly Theatre, London W1.
The story of Bernadette Soubirous, the French peasant girl who saw the vision of the Virgin Mary in a grotto in Lourdes was brought to the screen in 1942. To the best of my knowledge, I can’t recall any previous play being written on this subject, and John Kerr the author is to be congratulated on tackling successfully what must have been a difficult subject to translate into stage terms.
His play tells the story of Bernadette from the time of her retreat into a nunnery until her death. He has used the device of placing a nun on either side of the stage, in the manner of a Greek chorus, standing at lecterns from which they read various dates and happenings to introduce each scene.
We are shown her arrival where she is introduced to the novices and staff by the Mother General of the Convent of Nevers.
Bernadette is requested to tell them about her visitations, and then is asked to answer questions from the women present. She is told that the subject of her visions need no longer be discussed, but as one had expected it is mentioned often during the course of the play.
The central plot deals with the inability of the Mistress of Novices to accept Bernadette’s visions as being truthful. Having devoted her entire life to the service of God, she cannot accept that an ignorant peasant girl would be chosen for this honour. In showing the emotional conflict between these two women, the author has drawn two perfect portraits. Bernadette, firm in her belief, manages to over come her physical ailments and conform to the harsh discipline of the nunnery. On the other hand, her antagonist is at times a soul in torment, beset by her doubts.
Rita Tushingham returns to the stage after too long an absence to give a most touching performance of natural humility as Bernadette. Her death scene is an exceptionally moving moment. Barbara Jefford makes a striking figure of the title role, whether handing out penances to the novices or demanding further proof from Bernadette on the subject of her visions. Another welcome appearance comes from Margaretta Scott as the Mother Superior. The clarity of her voice should serve as an object lesson to all aspiring young actresses.