In March 1970, Patrick Wymark starred as a cigar-smoking Mother Superior in Eduardo Manet’s "The Nuns".
"I wasn't doing a kind of salacious drag act, " Wymark told journalist Neville Nisse in June 1970, "It was a good play, which offered what I thought was a challenge." Reflecting on his illness in October 1969 he continued, "The last thing I would dream of is to ridicule nuns. (They) do most useful work like those who nursed me so well after I had to have a minor operation in Eastbourne recently."
Far from being a "Carry On" type farce, Belgian director Walter Eysselinck’s production of "The Nuns" at the newly opened Gardner Arts Centre, Sussex University in Brighton, was a dark murder tale. The action is set in a cellar where Mother Superior (Wymark), Sister Angela (Dudley Foster) and mute Sister Inez promise to help a wealthy aristocrat escape from the mob destroying the town above their heads.
“The Nuns” was Robert Baldick's translation of "Les Nonnes" by Eduardo Manet. A former director of the National Theatre of Cuba, Manet left for Paris after Fidel Castro supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
"The Nuns" was based on a real-life incident where a group of rich Cubans were swindled by con men posing as priests and nuns offering to organise a boat to Miami in exchange for jewels and dollars. In reality, the victims of the con were left alive, but in Manet’s play, the aristocratic Senora is murdered, buried and then exhumed by the Nuns, “ to be displayed as painted and bejewelled proof of the trio’s innocence.”
Marian Diamond, as the guileless victim, had played Julia Stoner in the BBC adaptation of “The Speckled Band” which introduced Douglas Wilmer as Sherlock Holmes. She also played Alice Simpson in the lost “Mystery & Imagination” adaptation of “The Tractate Middoth”. She also appeared opposite Cliff Richard in an ITV Playhouse production (1 April 1968) called “A Matter of Diamonds”. Ironically she had most recently appeared as the Prioress in the BBC adaptation of “The Canterbury Tales”.
Manet relocated the action to Haiti during the 1804 genocide of white French colonists by the former slave population at the urging of governor general Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Historic reports of the massacre suggest women were killed last and some doctors and priests were spared, so the disguise of a Nun makes some sense. However, this is never discussed in the play – no comment is made on the fact that the Nuns are played by men. Similarly, although the Senora may seem naive to accept the Nuns' offer of help, historic reports suggest that some of the white colonists were smuggled out of Haiti by foreign mariners (Dessalines was anxious to preserve Haiti's exports). Sadly, current events show that people smugglers (and fake people smugglers) still have a ready supply of prospective customers ready to risk everything for the chance of life.
Manet was adamant that, “essentially it was Chinese theatre and Kabuki” and that original director Roger Blin told his cast, “You must be more macho than any macho. Don’t use little voices.”
According to Irving Wardle the Times March 13 1970), Patrick Wymark played a "beefy" and "nicely sanctimonious" Mother Superior, while Dudley Foster played a “wild-eyed knife brandishing” Sister Angela. The play dealt with a question of identity. Are they crooks posing as nuns or nuns turning into crooks? Wardle was impressed by the “claustrophobically guilt-laden atmosphere in which anarchic role-playing signals the breakdown of external authority.”
According to Phyllis Zatlin, “The Nuns” reflects much of Manet’s work in the 1970’s where, “characters react to metatheatrical games (and) the unseen, outside world represents revolution or some other danger.”
In New York the play closed after one performance at the Cherry Lane Theatre. The role of Sister Angela did allegedly bring Roy Scheider to the attention of William Friedkin for The French Connection (Thayer David from “Dark Shadows” played Mother Superior). While the play lasted longer at Brighton (doubtless on the strength of Wymark’s name) it was not the success that it had been in Paris. It’s possible that the English translation lost something of this Cuban author writing in French. On the other hand, the play was translated and performed in Afrikaans so maybe “The Nuns” had more to say to South African audiences.
1996 Interview with Eduardo Manet
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