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Murray Watts‘ “First Light,” which is presently playing at Hawke and Hunter, ostensibly spends a night with the chaplain of a boarding-school who is losing his faith in God, but this angry political drama is ultimately more concerned with our dwindling belief in human beings. Tom (Andrew Harrison) has been made a widower and he is about to be kicked out of his school digs. On his last night at school, he is visited in the small hours by one of the girls, the needy but deeply mature Merry (Natalie Burt), who has herself lately lost her father. They clown about and try to comfort one another. Tom gives Merry a couple of sips of his whisky, and they curl up together on his sofa.

The context for this, if one needs a reminder, is the zombie apocalypse of paedo Catholic priests who apparently attacked generations of schoolchildren back in the seventies, only to be sensationally exposed in recent media coverage. But this play contends that all of the background checks and precautionary chaperoning that have been since introduced to prevent “inappropriate” relationships between children and teachers itself creates doubt, treating a close or even meaningful rapport with a student as automatically suspicious, and replacing one’s natural faith in others with procedures. “First Light” suggests that apparently-innocuous regulations may be wreaking great damage upon both education and normal human relationships.

Tom’s martyrdom assumes Christ-like proportions. Perhaps he initially doubts in both himself and Merry, for his nervous skirting around her presence evokes Titian’s Christ dancing just out of Magdalene’s reach in Noli Me Tangere. We may ourselves doubt, for when Tom blurts out that Merry is “beautiful,” do we presume that this signifies anything more than a father’s awe at his daughter’s magnificence? If the reasonable but beleaguered headmaster (Laurence Kennedy) volunteers for the role of Pontius Pilate, he turns out to be armed with some sharp lines and his own store of outrage. The penultimate scene of the moral battle between Tom and the head consequently becomes utterly gripping.

Earlier in the week, I took my hat off to Watts’ “Happiness,” but “First Light,” is fired with more ambition and shaped with more care, and it also benefits from being performed by a stunning cast. Watts’ delegation also contained a third play, “Darwin’s Tree,” which, alas, Tychy is now unable to review.

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