The Two Popes – Royal and Derngate, Northampton

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Writer: Anthony McCarten

Director: James Dacre

Since getting its act together in the mid-first millennium, the catholic church has been fine-tuning its dogma regarding sin, even laying claim to the original one. If establishing an entire judgemental faith-based belief system on an inquisitive couple scrumping an apple in a nudist colony is justification, then the road to hell is well and truly paved with good intentions. (They made hell up as well.) All bases were covered, the bar set impossibly low. Thank God then for confession. These Two Popes believe they have much to confess – evidently so, it transpires in Act 2’s compelling, self-evisceration of the soul.

Eschewing his vestments of Pontiff pomp, Pope Benedict XVI, Anton Lesser’s sublime feat of aesthete transcendence, decoys the paparazzi and tourists alike, heaven-bent on a mission of secular importance. A bowl of his childhood Black Forest favourite ‘suppe’ is prepared with due ritual devotion by long-time friend and confidante, Sister Briggita (Lynsey Beauchamp). They share child-like anticipation as their favourite Austrian TV show begins – Little Rex the Dog Detective. An Alsatian, naturally. The biblical storm outside is a portent of the bombshell secret he lands on Sister Briggita – he is minded to resign the Papacy. It has precedent he tells her by way of ameliorating her utter shock, albeit a 700-year-old one.

Meanwhile, swashbuckling, Cardinal Bergoglio (Henry Woodeson) visiting a Buenos Aires slum, is packing away his travel-light altar accessories after saying Mass, he anticipates, for the last time. He also wishes to retire, similarly entreated to reconsider by the vivacious young Sister Sophia (a very much one to watch, Leaphia Darko). She shares her childhood memories of the horrors of African orphanhood, Bergoglio, his of the relative Argentine peace following the genocidal Junta ‘Generals’. He just wishes the Holy Father would reply to his resignation letter. He’s eligible at 75; the former, 82, had prayed to God not to be chosen to be Pope Elect.

Playwright Anthony McCarten crafts a fictional meeting of such disparate hearts, souls and minds with exquisite insight, empathy and driven, lighting-crackle vitality: it’s a slow-burner for sure. His dreams come true by having director, James Dacre take on both Anton Lessor and Henry Woodeson as the eponymous protagonists. Truly, The Lord casts in mysterious ways. McCarten’s prose draws, inevitably, on the sacred and profane and blossoms into a conspiracy of intimacy once the sparring bouts have subsided.

Summoned to The Vatican, Bergoglio is taken into Benedict’s confidence: The ‘Panzer Pope/Enforcer’ meets the ex-bouncer Argentine footie-fanatic. Can the Holy Mother Church face change, argues Bergoglio? Benedict sees it as a downward spiral of compromise. Theirs becomes a process of paring to the emotional and spiritual bone their darkest fears – of loss of Faith – while confronting guilty pasts. ‘Guilt! There’s no better agent for good behaviour than guilt,’ remonstrates Benedict, ‘and take that from a German.’ On the lighter side, he blind-sides Bergoglio with a ‘German joke’ that wasn’t meant to be funny.

Benedict seeks an impossible forgiveness and absolution for his dereliction of duty to root out and defrock sexual predator priests, his membership of the Hitler Youth such a default imperative for any teenage boy. Bergoglio, haunted by his ‘supping with the Devil’ Generals to protect his priests who, nonetheless, suffered appalling torture and summary execution. Lessor and Woodeson’s redemptive dialogue in the deserted Sistine Chapel, realised by designer Jonathan Fensom and lit with luxurious episodes taken from the chapel ceiling’s The Last Judgement by video and projection designer, Duncan McLean and lighting from Charles Balfour, takes on an epiphanic catharsis that resonates long after the final curtain call. A heaven-sent certain must-see.

Runs Until 15 October 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

An intimacy of sublime humanity.

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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