The Pope review – crisis at the heart of Catholicism

Royal & Derngate, Northampton
Unmissable performances save a creaky tale of differing approaches to God’s calling

Anthony McCarten, the Oscar-nominated writer of the Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, clearly has a feeling for complex personalities. His new play (also to be released as a book and a “major motion picture”) riffs on the contrasts and unexpected similarities between two multi-faceted characters.

Ratzinger is German, loves Mozart, Berlin cabaret songs and a weekly TV series with a canine hero and cliffhanger endings. Bergoglio is Argentinian, fanatical about football, knows the words to Yellow Submarine and dances the tango at least once a week. If they were a couple, they would be odd. But this relationship is more intricate and odder than that of any couple: both men incarnate opposite poles of a single role. One is, the other will be, pope.

Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI, the arch-conservative, once nicknamed God’s rottweiler. Cardinal Bergoglio is the outspoken advocate of change who believes the duty of the church is to give food to the starving – bread of heaven and of Earth to those bombarded in Syria, washed up on Lampedusa, abandoned in hospitals.

Extraordinarily, the rule keeper, Benedict, wants to violate a Catholic tradition unbroken for more than 700 years: he wants to resign. Is Bergoglio the man to take his place?

The heart of the play is in the encounters between the two men in the Vatican. Set-up scenes (in Rome and Buenos Aires), in which each confides in a religious sister to bring out his backstory, are overlong and creaky. They lend the action a Jesuit-style, propagation-of-the-faith-piece feel. What powers the production are the second-half exchanges between the two prelates as they confront one another’s different ways of living their experience of God and the church in the world.

As directed by James Dacre, Anton Lesser (Benedict) and Nicholas Woodeson (Bergoglio) seem to reveal, in fits and starts and flashes, the tattered, torn and patched-together souls of these aged men who have experienced depths of sin and have struggled to find self-forgiveness (performances not to be missed).

When they finally find a way forward, through compassion and acceptance of change, it is not just as popes present and future, but as people facing up to the complexities of existence.

• At the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, until 22 June

Watch a rehearsal scene from The Pope.

Contributor

Clare Brennan

The GuardianTramp

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