19 July 2007

The Last Confession - Haymarket Theatre, Wednesday 18th July 2007

Just the thing for a sultry Wednesday night in London – a bit of Catholic-bashing. And not just any old catholics either – this is real Pope on a Rope stuff. Set in the very recent past, this play looks at the backstabbing, deceit, blackmail and Byzantine machinations of the Conclave of Cardinals electing the successor to Pope John, the unexplained death of Pope John Paul I after only 33 turbulent days in office as God’s Vicar and the election to the Pontificate of the previously unheard of man who was crowned John Paul II. Along the way we get every stereotyped kind of cardinal there is – old and fusty, young and ambitious, slimy and deceitful - David Suchet stalking the corridors of power in his red robes, wrestling with his conscience and giving us a bit of his Poirot act thrown in for good measure, earnest young prebends and even a comedy nun (“Would you be wantin’ a cop of coffee Hooly Fadder? Oh go’wan, go’wan, go’wan!” OK, maybe she didn’t say it exactly like that, but she could have done).

Although I did find parts of this very heavy going – the subject matter isn’t frivolous, after all – I was really amazed to read in the programme that this is the author’s first play. You’d never believe it. It’s a little top-heavy at times, but the supporting roles are written very well and nicely integrated, there is just enough comedy to leaven the mix sufficiently to make the whole loaf rise and just enough blasphemy to affront all the good Catholics in the audience. Although there is sometimes some confusion about exactly what the play is – political thriller, murder mystery, heavyweight comedy – it unravels at just the right pace to leave you slightly unsure about where the next few minutes will be leading, with dialogue as intricate and complex as the tiled floor of the Sistine Chapel. There is a sense of discomfiture as well – after all this is the very recent past – and when the name of an obscure German cardinal called Ratzenberger is thrown in unexpectedly during the incessant in-fighting towards the end, this discomfiture slaps you round the face and leaves you with the impression of the Fisherman’s Ring outlined on your cheek (yes, its that Cardinal Ratzenberger); you can almost feel time unfurling and catching up with you. The play also feels astonishingly relevant as it’s about the appointment of a “liberal” pope and his unpopularity with the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, his subsequent “removal” and the enthronement of a Polish replacement whom they hope will be considerably more hard-line (but unfortunately who, as history shows, turns out to be just as liberal as his predecessor. So, when he dies, the Church brings in a Rottweiler who overturns everything that the two John Pauls have worked so hard to achieve. But hey, all for the Glory of Mother Church, eh?).

David Suchet seemed a little uncomfortable at times with his role and even (gasp!) actually fluffed a couple of his lines. There was, unfortunately, quite a lot of his Salieri and his Poirot on stage at times – in fact, in the investigation scene, where the Vatican doctor and various minor Vatican officials are being cross-examined (“Doctor, did you test the coffee in his cup? The sweets in the bowl?”) I half expected him to whip off his skullcap, straighten the ornaments on the table and mutter “But you see, ‘Astings, there was the motive, the method and the opportunity! In fact, the murderer is in zis very room!” In fact, the denouement turns out to be very sub-Christie – Suchet’s confessor turns out to be none other than JP2 himself, which is a bit too neat and tidy. Richard O’Callaghan was a worthy John Paul, with enough of the “son of a Venice bricklayer” about his portrayal to make it believable that he was a man promoted above his ability and outside his range of experience but determined to do what he thought was right, but I doubt very much that the Big JP would ever have participated in the following exchange: JP – “I’m sending you to Florence” Cardinal – “I’d rather go to hell!” JP – “That too can be arranged!”. I thought Maroussia Frank could have done a little more with her Nun than play it as Mrs. Doyle from “Father Ted” and I noticed that her accent slipped a couple of times.

Lighting was effective, if slightly badly sourced at times, leaving some of the actors’ faces in shadows. The set was very well done, representing (I suppose) rooms within rooms and doors within doors as a way of commenting on the endless political wangling going on inside them – or maybe it was “There are many mansions in my fathers house” (or whatever the quote is). I did think, however, that some of these doors ended up being practically superfluous as they didn’t seem to be used much. And I do very much doubt that they use chrysanthemums in the Vatican Gardens. The choice of music was rather odd – with 2000 years of Christian music to choose from, the use of what sounded like Enya seemed very strange.

All in all, an interesting and absorbing play about earthly power and its use and abuse, but showing the odd fault here and there. Not bad for a beginner though, even if he is 61 years old. But he’s not as old as some of the recent popes have been, so there’s time for him to work on his craft yet.

Interestingly, there were three Catholic priests in the audience. I’d give three Hail Mary’s and a Hello Dolly to know what they thought of the evening!

What the critics thought: