The Two Popes – Rose Theatre Kingston, London

Reviewer: Oliver Pattrick

Writer: Anthony McCarten

Director: James Dacre

Marat/Sade, Frost/Nixon – theatre is regularly electrified by the clash of two opposing characters. While the relationship between a retiring pope and his successor might not leap out as fitting material for such a treatment, it is the contrast between their personalities and approaches to the Catholic Church that forms the basis of Anthony McCarton’s The Two Popes.

The Vatican is seldom associated with radical change, so it is unsurprising that McCarten latched on to the headline-grabbing decision of Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 to retire, the first incumbent to do so in 700 years. Conservative in his views and intensely intellectual, he made a very different pope from the reformist Jorge Bergoglio, who had become widely loved as a cardinal for his hands-on approach and support of the poor, if controversial for his role in Argentina’s troubled past. The success of McCarten’s adaptation of his play into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce is testament to the potential of the material.

A surprisingly brief three years later and the play has been revived in a touring production directed by James Dacre and featuring Anton Lesser as Benedict, with Nicholas Woodeson playing Bergoglio. The play takes the audience at a steady pace from Benedict’s decision to resign through to the first public appearance of the newly created Pope Francis, seen gloriously bathed in light in one of the more striking moments of Charles Balfour’s lighting design. The drama focuses on Benedict’s attempts to persuade Bergoglio to ditch his own plans for retirement and become a very different figurehead for the Church.

Unfortunately inevitable comparison between film and stage production only highlights the shortcomings of the latter, which is curiously old-fashioned in its form and struggles to find the drama supplied by the flashbacks in the film. The first two scenes are particularly laboured: overlong, stuffed with exposition and burdened with a clumsy parallelism as each pope reveals his thoughts to a nun whose character is so thinly drawn as to verge on stereotype. Moments of comedy are dutifully peppered through the drama, tired jokes about German humour mingling with more successful moments where ordinariness suddenly appears in the popes’ domestic lives: football, Fanta and The Beatles.

Once the two popes meet, the tension cranks up significantly, although the clash of opinions struggles to leave the audience on the edge of its seat as the interval arrives. In fact, the play is at its best in the second half where the two men edge towards understanding and reconciliation. Lesser might not quite convey the physical frailty of Benedict, and his tendency to yelp the final word of sentences can be irritating, but he succeeds in conveying the pope’s sense of loneliness and failure beneath the rigid exterior.

Meanwhile, Woodeson brings a lively contrasting physicality and warmth to Bergoglio and works hard to suggest the inner torment arising from his morally dubious past. However, these very talented actors are ill-served by the script, whose weaknesses resurface: the complex and very powerful story of Bergoglio’s involvement with Argentine Junta lands as an info-dump of narration, while Benedict stands holding a large red book. It feels like a particularly demanding episode of This is Your Life.

It is a shame as the production has much going for it: Jonathan Fensom’s set with its series of arches and use of gauze is simple but elegant and works very well with Duncan McLean’s restrained projection in conveying locations as varied as the Sistine Chapel and the gardens of Castel Gandolfo. But the eye is drawn to it all too often as the pace slackens. Ultimately the personal demons of the two popes and the significant challenges faced by the Catholic Church receive a fairly superficial treatment by a script that is all tell and no show.

Runs until 23 September 2022 then continues to tour

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Curiously old-fashioned

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