BWW Review: THE POPE, Royal and Derngate, Northampton
The world premiere of screenwriter Anthony McCarten's (The Theory of Everything, Bohemian Rhapsody, Darkest Hour) play The Pope at Royal and Derngate looks at a turning point moment in the Catholic Church - the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and his replacement with Pope Francis. Two popes living, but more than that, the retirement was a challenge to the idea that a pope should die in office - an idea that had been unchallenged for 700 years.
Each pontiff is seen in conversation with a nun before action moves to the Vatican and the two men meet. The whole piece hangs off the two central performances - Anton Lesser as the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Nicholas Woodeson as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio - and both men are excellent.
Lesser challenges ideas of what the academic Benedict would be like - with some humour and self-reflection about his own shortcomings as Pontiff. Woodeson's Bergoglio initially fits more into your preconceptions of the charismatic Argentintian reformer, but in the conversations between the two men it becomes clear that despite their very different viewpoints, they have some similarities in their pasts - although they have dealt with them very differently.
The performances are magnetic and engaging, and the production is undoubtedly well directed by Royal and Derngate's Artistic Director James Dacre, but I found it hard to see why this is a play - and what the audience is getting from this that they wouldn't have got if it was on radio or an audiobook. McCarten's script has already been filmed for Netflix (with Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in the leading roles), so perhaps that will feel less static.
There is another difficulty in that there's no resolution to this - the two Popes still exist together in the Vatican, the issues that the church was confronting have not gone away or been resolved, and you can't change or fix the Popes' pasts. There are no real answers for the audience after two and a half hours, although it is interesting to watch these two old men confronting the top job in their vocation at an age when they would rather be retiring.
I'm also not sure who the audience is for this - if you are sceptical about religion and the Catholic Church, I don't think there is any ground that you won't have thought about before. And if you are part of the Church, some of themes may be things you would rather not confront during an evening at the theatre.
But those two central performances are worth it. Lesser and Woodeson hold your attention and give you plenty to think about, and the set and sound design are both clever - the latter intimate when Benedict is talking in the convent to Lynsey Beauchamp's Sister Brigitta, echoing and cavernous when the two men are in the Sistine Chapel - although I could use a break from the rain effects now, as this is the third play of the five so far this latest Made in Northampton season that has seen heavy use of it!
This is interesting and thought-provoking work, but ultimately I'm not sure that the natural home for this piece is on stage.
Photo credit; Manuel Harlan