The Two Popes – Royal & Derngate

Written by Anthony McCarten

Directed by James Dacre

Rating: 4 out of 5.

With an audience of around 1.2 billion (give or take), the incumbent Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, is arguably one of the world’s most influential and powerful men. And his elective to the Papacy was met with a welcoming warmth by those out with the church, a man whose influence against the archaic was notable, who had a more contemporary (though still flawed) view of women’s rights, homosexuality, and bureaucracy. His predecessor, disagreeing virulently with Francis, may have just been the man to recognise this ability before he even slipped on the red slippers. 

The tumultuous period in which Pope Benedict XVI took to his abdication is the subject of Anthony McCarten’s staging of The Two Popes. The meeting of the incumbent Conservative, unwilling to reform, and the progressive moderate – encasing a playful account of how the balance of power shifted, and the path of the largest branch of Christianity was altered over a bottle of Fanta, and love of Tango dancing.

A semi-returning production for the Royal & Derngate Theatre, the prestige of Anton Lesser’s performance of Pope Benedict XVI is the meritorious success of the evening. The physicality of communication is spectator, small microcosmic movements to enable audiences the shorthand that not all is right with Benedict without outright stating the facts. Lesser’s more lurching pace forces those around him to freeze, to hinder themselves in the presence of the voice of God. Enabling a power dynamic onstage which captivates and ensnares even the most unbelieving of their Holy cause: saint, sinner, all are welcome.

Another hand of the Lord, a more approachable vessel if you will, Nicholas Woodeson carries the more synonymous energy and sincerity that Cardinal Bergoglio (later Pope Francis) emanates through his publicised persona. Woodeson can have a touch more fun and frivolity with the role, of a cardinal who once whistled ‘Dancing Queen’ in the Vatican bathrooms, who sought the piety of life, and demonstrates a more personable touch with James Dacre’s direction. Though it takes a turnabout as reality ensnares the man looking to retire. This is the man with whom Benedict’s proposed resignation could impact the most. A man who, never questioning his faith, finds himself questioning his duty under the weight of the task pushed upon him. It’s there in Woodeson’s eyes for the most part, frantic in the wild, lost within the wonder of the Sistine Chapel, but still with the glint of humanity.

But there’s an aspect of life the two men share: failure. Failure to protect. Failure to preserve. Bergoglio is marred by this failure to save his priests from the Argentinian Junta: Benedict carries the sin of the church’s atrocities as it turned its back on the young victims of sexual violence. McCarten’s gorgeous use of language refrains from a glorification of the church, but it abstains from an outright smear. It’s a difficult balance, an unenviable task they handle with deft clarity.

A miracle in its own divine right, with limited space upon the Royal’s sumptuous though restricted size – the act of manifesting location and atmosphere often lies in the hands of the performers, and the genius simplicity of Duncan McLean’s video projection and Charles Balfour’s lighting. To whisk the audience from the gardens of Castel Gandolfo to the rich colours of the Sistine Chapel occurs with the tightest of conduction, a weight emphasised upon them as the palettes shift with the intensity of McCarten’s scripting.

But in this rich splendour all around, the encompassing magnificence of the show outshines the smaller aspects – and where Lynsey Beauchamp turns in a perfectly fine and pleasant part as a foil and friend for Lesser to work off as Sister Brigitta, the rest cannot be said for additional side-roles who seemingly fill the space and less of a purpose, almost becoming a distraction in moments.

Be not turned by the religious overtone, as both Fensom and McCarten recognise the weight of discussion and potential for segregation, instead turning it back onto the church itself. Some of the most powerful moments use not Holy scripture, but silences set to Anna Dudley’s composition chiefly demonstrated in Benedict’s final, unheard, confession to Bergoglio. The sharpness of McCarten’s script ensures audiences remain invested in the goings on in this dialogue-rich production. The Two Popes makes a glorious return to the venue, an esteemed and sharp presence offering a dynamic insight into the unseen politics of the church, its serious shortcomings, and the mortality of it all.

An Esteemed and Sharp Return

The Two Popes runs at the Royal & Derngate until October 15th.

Tickets for which may be obtained here.

Photo Credit – Manuel Harlan

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