By: Roger Crane
Directed by: David Jones
Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre
Date: Thursday 3rd May 2007
This is a world premiere of the first produced play by a New York lawyer in his fifties. It has seventeen speaking parts, only one double, and has taken ten years to be staged. It was an amazing debut, a fine play, and also proves the Chichester Festival Theatre management are still willing to take risks.
We attended a pre-show talk by the author, which was very informative, and entertaining, although I didn’t manage to hear everything. I’m hoping to eventually download their podcast to re-hear it all, but for now I’ll just mention that it was very funny – he has a good sense of humour – and didn’t give anything away about the plot, apart from suggesting that there’s a twist. Apparently someone had been coming on in a different costume at the end, and people weren’t recognising who he was, so now he comes on in the same costume, and people get it, whatever “it” is. Roger also stressed that he would be available at the end of the performance tonight, and positively encouraged us to come up and tell him how it went. We did so, and he kindly signed our copy of the play text. Wonderful. Now for the play itself.
The play tells the story of the year of the three Popes, as seen by insiders in the Vatican. It’s a story of the power struggle within the Catholic hierarchy (not that different from power struggles anywhere, it must be said), but heightened by the possibility that a Pope has been bumped off to make way for a more malleable or even reactionary pontiff, one who will unravel the gains made by the liberal reformers of recent years. We see the developments through the eyes of Cardinal Benelli, played by David Suchet, who is making his final confession to a monk/priest, and insists on going over the sad events of 1978. He appears to be confessing to killing the emissary of God, but experienced theatregoers such as ourselves take this sort of thing with a large chunk of salt, and don’t assume it’s literally true. (One of these days it will – won’t we be surprised!)
Benelli himself rejects being elected as Pope once Paul dies, and instead engineers the election of Luciani, who takes the name John Paul I. He is a saintly man, more Christ-like than anyone else in the play, or even in the entire Vatican, for that matter. His ideas shock the Curia, the Vatican establishment, and he even plans to replace many of those in positions of power. It is as these plans are being made that the Pope is found dead, in bed, with a heart attack being declared to be the cause of death. Benelli insists on an investigation, but it soon becomes clear that it’s just a superficial attempt to allay public suspicions. No autopsy is done, and there’s a clear possibility that the Pope may have been denied his medicine at a crucial time. In any case, murder cannot be proved, and cannot be ruled out.
That’s one of the joys of this play. It’s good at presenting the facts as far as they are known, with some reasonably inferred glosses, but leaves us entirely to make up our own minds. However, it’s clear Cardinal Benelli’s sense of guilt relates to his manoeuvring Luciani into the Papacy, to whose pressures he then succumbed. We then have the delight of seeing the various political groupings within the Cardinals locking horns over John Paul’s successor, and eventually compromising on the first non-Italian Pope for 500 years, John Paul II. Benelli has lost his chance to be Pope.
There is so much material in this play that it takes a while to absorb a lot of the details. The characters of the various Cardinals are beautifully sketched in – each has their own agenda, and to an extent they overlap, but I felt that dissension and rivalry could burst out anywhere, at any time, over the slightest thing. There was no serious commitment to serving God in any of them, other than Luciani. The Catholic religion was merely the product the Church was selling that year; given time, they might have moved into many other areas, as Marcinkus was doing with the Vatican Bank. Roger Crane mentioned that one senior Church Official, who read his play, considered that he was trying to bring down the Catholic Church. I certainly didn’t get that impression from this production, but in any case, he couldn’t do nearly as good a job as the people in charge of it are doing.
Now for the details. The set was all cages – right angles of iron bars which could be moved around easily to create offices, open spaces, etc. They made the Vatican seem like a prison – heavily fortified, an effect referred to in the text when someone mentions the Pope as being a prisoner in his own apartments. The desks and chairs, etc, were fairly plain, and costumes were naturally based on actual designs – I’m still not sure why some cardinals wear red, and some wear black trimmed with red – perhaps my resident Catholic will enlighten me. (Speaking of which, he gave me a very useful run down of the three Popes storyline before the off, which came in very handy as I didn’t have time to read the program notes beforehand.) [P.S. no, he doesn’t know why there are different colour schemes either.]
Performances. David Suchet was excellent, as always. He oozed power and intelligence, reminding me a bit of the Robert Maxwell portrayal by Michael Pennington (not that weird, we just haven’t seen David Suchet’s version yet (on TV)). Maxwell was the sort of person who might happily have made someone into a Pope, too. Michael Jayston as the confessor had a more difficult job, as he mainly seemed to be devil’s advocate (sorry) to Benelli within the structure of the play, to get him to expand on his views. His character develops in unexpected ways, however, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing him on stage again.
Luciani (Richard O’Callaghan) was superb. His simplicity and strength made the piece work. Roger Crane made some reference to the question of how the Christian churches would react if Christ were to return, and that he feels his play addresses that issue. It certainly does, as Luciani is as close to Christ as you’re likely to get in the upper strata of any major church nowadays. I felt he was a lamb to the slaughter fairly early on, though it was good to see him standing up to the lions and doing a bit of roaring himself. Of the other cardinals, Baggio and Felici made the most impression, although that’s not to diminish my appreciation of the others. Baggio (Bruce Purchase) was the most blunt, and the only one to openly defy the new Pope. Felici (Charles Kay) was more suave, a real politician, who had seen much over the years and learned how to finesse each opportunity to his, or rather the Church’s, greatest advantage.
One final mention for Sister Vincenza (Maroussia Frank), a stroppy nun who really knows how to serve, but doesn’t see any need to soften the blow.
Finally, I must just emphasise how entertaining this was. Often funny, it was also tense, gripping and invariably powerful. The insights into human nature were accurate, and the drama built to a very satisfactory conclusion, in the sense that we knew when it was finished, and felt complete, rather than we thought it was a happy outcome for all concerned. Life’s like that.
I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and would happily see this play again. Hopefully other managements will be courageous enough to stage it, now they know it’s a hit.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me