As part of its Made in Northampton season, Royal & Derngate Northampton is staging a world premiere of The Pope, which runs on the Royal stage until Saturday 22 June, Karin Johnstone reviews it here
We see an elderly Bavarian man having soup and dumplings with his trusted confidant, a nun. It is a private weekly visit where they watch a TV detective together.
‘Who gets a new job at 78?’ he asks.
His confidant, Sister Brigitta, is devastated to learn that he wants to resign from his job. This is a touching scene where we begin to see the disquiet in the heart of the man.
The man, Joseph Ratzinger, is Pope Benedict XVI and he is about to shatter the tradition of 700 hundred years. Ratzinger shocked the world with this cataclysmic event. The premise of this play is that a Pope, unlike presidents and prime ministers just does not resign. As a spiritual leader of 1.28 billion followers, a Pope should mirror Christ’s own sacrifice and suffering with no way out.
Playwright Anthony McCarten writer of Darkest Hour and The Theory of Everything, likes to explore the characters of powerful yet flawed individuals. The Pope explores the relationship between the conservative Pope Benedict XVI (Ratzinger) and the more liberal Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (our present-day Pope Francis). Charismatic Bergoglio is the antithesis of the German. Argentinian Jorge – an ex bouncer, football loving and tango dancing man prepared to address the real contemporary issues facing the Catholic church today.
The play does little to address issues such as the role of women in the church, a stance for or against homosexuality and the lack of condemnation of child abusing priests. What it does do is show the vulnerability and torment carried by both men. McCarten has ingeniously contrived a meeting between these two men. Both men share guilty secrets and hear each other’s confessions.
The play is carried by authentic performances from Anton Lesser as Pope Benedict XVI and Nicholas Woodeson who plays the future Pope Francis. The men dance around each other’s beliefs, torments and guilty secrets. James Dacre has directed this sensitively. Composer Anne Dudley has created a sacred soundtrack to embody the spirit of the Church which beautifully supports this narrative.
The play is funny and intimate giving a glimpse into the humanity of men that are normally shrouded in tradition, ritual and politics.