Anthony McCarten’s new play, The Pope, goes behind the pomp, ceremony and politics of the Vatican City to look at a pivotal moment in papal history when the unthinkable happened.
The sudden resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013 shocked the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. It hadn’t happened in over 700 years. Popes were expected to suffer and die in the job, not quit and walk away.
And worse this arch conservative and traditionalist, a German scholar and former member of the Hitler Youth, who opposed change of any sort in the faith’s teachings, had recommended his nemesis, the affable, football-loving, former Argentinain club bouncer, Cardinal Bergoglio, as his successor.
The Pope premiered last night at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate theatre, ahead of the publication of McCarten’s book of the same name and in advance of the Netflix film starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce.
And it is a riveting piece of theatre that deserves a West End run (if they ditch the ill-conceived addition of a community ensemble).
On paper, to an atheist like me, this seems a dry and unlikely subject for a play. But McCarten has put together a top-notch drama which is brought to life by the outstanding performances of gifted character actors, Anton Lesser and Nicholas Woodeson.
Here were two elderly cardinals who, after a lifetime serving their faith, were looking forward to retirement until they were thrust into the limelight by the secretive voting of the papal conclave in Rome.
Now the future of the papacy is in their vastly different hands.
The Pope opens with the election of 78-year-old Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the title role in 2005.
He appears humble, mild and dour, a safe-option pontiff but who turns out to lack charisma and is dry, scholastic and unreachable.
As Pope Benedict he becomes known as God’s Rottweiler, an anti-reformer who opposes change, and a man who buries his head in the sand when world-wide reports of sexual abuse by priests is exposed.
But Ratzinger was a reluctant pope. He’d been gearing up for retirement, looking forward to a quiet life of contemplation and solitude.
“Who gets a new job at 78!” he protests. He never wanted to be Pope but it isn’t a job you can turn down.
Yet, after eight years he now considers just that – walking away, the first Pope to resign since 1294.
In Argentina the likeable Cardinal Bergoglio, who had been the conclave’s second choice, is shuffling around his rooms to Abba’s Dancing Queen.
He’s animated and jovial, a modernist who spends his time working with the poor and reaching out to his people.
But he’s tired, the 75-year-old is having a crisis of faith, and he wants to retire – if only the Pope will sign his release papers.
In the end Bergoglio must go to Rome to confront the Holy Father and there follows a blisteringly good exchange between these two deeply contrasting men.
Anton Lesser is superb as Benedict. Earnest, frail, dignified and introverted. He’s inhibited and unsure of himself, overwhelmed by the role he has been forced to accept.
An elder statesman who has lived life in the shadows, now pushed out onto the world stage – and all he wants to do is hide and watch his favourite soap on TV.
Meanwhile Woodeson first sparkles as the affable Bergoglio and then turns this jocular performance on its head when he confesses to horrifying past sins during the time of Argentina’s Dirty War.
Both this deeply flawed priest and his papal confessor argue and fight over the future of both the church and their roles in it, of doctrine and belief, of tradition and change, faith and destiny.
Towering performances here from both actors in an enthralling production.
McCarten’s dialogue is powerful, surprisingly witty, and holds your attention throughout.
The only thing that spoiled it for me was director James Dacre’s decision to include four extras from a community ensemble.
Their solemn appearance, as nuns and priests, destroyed tension during the fierce exchanges between the two central characters and brought titters from the first night audience.
The Pope runs on the Royal stage until June 22.
Faith and destiny. Anton Lesser & Nicholas Woodeson give towering performances in Anthony McCarten’s riveting play.