Writer: Anthony McCarten
Director: James Dacre
Reviewer: James Garrington
A world-premiere, The Pope is the latest production to come out of the Made in Northampton stable – and like many of its predecessors it is a spellbinding piece of theatre. It is based on a true story, the story of two men and what is arguably the most powerful job in the world.
When John Paul II died in 2005 the Cardinals decided that they needed continuity. They elected the man who had been an advisor and confidante to his predecessor, a well-known and influential figure in the Vatican, the staunchly conservative Cardinal Ratzinger who became Pope Benedict XVI. Then, in 2013 Benedict made a decision to do something that had not been done for over 700 years – he wanted to resign. Would his conscience allow him to go, or would it rather demand that he stayed? Who would be chosen as his successor, and what direction might that take the Church in? Was there someone suitable to take over? What reputational damage would be done by him leaving or by him staying?
Meanwhile, in Buenos Aires, another senior churchman, Cardinal Bergoglio, has also decided to retire. The only problem is, he needs Benedict’s signature on his retirement papers and that signature has not been forthcoming. Even as he is on the point of booking his flight to Rome to deal with the matter face to face, he receives the summons – the Pope wishes to see him urgently.
A stellar team has been assembled for this production, both on-stage and in the creative departments – and it shows. At its heart are two tour-de-force performances from Anton Lesser (Benedict XVI) and Nicholas Woodeson (Cardinal Bergolgio), each reflecting the unique character of their subjects and each undoubtedly the result of many hours of study. Lesser’s Benedict is an ultra-traditionalist, an almost humourless German who has become increasingly burdened by the weight of his office and the scandals that have been coming to light during his tenure. The only time he can relax is when he visits his friend and confidante Sister Brigitta (Lynsey Beauchamp) for German soup and some time in front of the television together – and then he comes to life, showing real excitement and enthusiasm at the fate of a dog in their favourite programme. Woodeson’s Bergoglio is a completely different type of character – one-time bouncer, tango dancer and football-lover he is a man with the common touch who spends his time not with his books but among the poor. Fond of a joke, this is a man who also says what he thinks with deeply-held beliefs about the need for reform, loved and admired by people and the local clergy, embodied here by Sister Sophia (Faith Alabi)
Director James Dacre has worked with the cast in meticulous detail to create some beautifully positioned pictures on the stage, as the balance of guilt and burden shifts from one man to the other until one striking moment in the Sistine Chapel when the power shift is almost tangible. From his initial firm refusal, you can feel Bergolgio’s acceptance of the inevitability of what is happening. Detail is everywhere – the unobtrusive but highly appropriate music by Anne Dudley, the design by Jonathan Fensom complete with incense permeating the audience, and of course the thought-provoking script by Anthony McCarten brought to life by the moving and engrossing performances.
Part leader, part politician, the situation faced then is reflected in what the world faces now. What leadership qualities do we need? Are any of the candidates suitable? Most importantly, do we want a future of conservatism or liberalism, of status quo or reform, someone who divides or who unites?
This is a very timely, masterly and unmissable piece of work.
Runs Until 22 June 2019 and on tour | Image: Manuel Harlan