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The Two Popes

by on 15 September 2022

Holy Smoke, and Mirrors

The Two Popes

by Anthony McCarten

Royal and Derngate and Anthology Theatre at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 23rd September, then on tour until 29th October

Review by Mark Aspen

Now for something completely different … papacy complexity.  Problems in the highest echelons of the Roman Catholic Church, discussions on theology and politics, the personal interests and minor tribulations of cardinals and their opinions, ecclesiastical and political, do not seem at first to provide fruitful material of a stage play.  But thanks to Anthony McCarten’s witty and nimble script, and the skills of two highly respected actors in this touring production, these are the subjects of two hours of enthralling and thoughtful theatre. 

In early 2013, Pope Benedict XVI caused consternation among the world’s twelve thousand million Roman Catholics by resigning, the first Pope to abdicate since Gregory XII in 1415, and the first to resign voluntarily since Celestine V in 1294.  The immediate period leading up the Papal Renunciation, as it is formally called, is the unlikely subject of the premiere at the Rose Theatre of The Two Popes.  It is in its third iteration, since the pre-Covid premiere in Northampton of McCarten’s The Pope, and his multi-award-winning film adaption, for which he received Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards, and an Oscar nomination.

The Rose Theatre is well up to its glittering predecessors.  The magnificent grandeur of Vatican architecture is brilliantly captured in designer Jonathan Fensom’s set, enhanced by Duncan McLean’s projections, which give trompe d’œil impressions of locations in and around the Vatican, literally spelt out in Latin in masonry inscriptions.  From gloomy ecclesiastical depths to the marble magnificence of the Sistine Chapel, one could almost smell the incense.  Smaller rooms are picked out in accurate detail, from the posh parlour of the Pope to the austere bed-sit of an elderly nun. 

It is in the bed-sit in the Convent of St Lucca that we are introduced to Pope Benedict XVI one stormy evening (the lightning effect one of many inspired and subtle examples of Charles Balfour’s lighting design).   Sister Brigitta, a fellow Bavarian, has known the Pope since he was Father Joseph Ratzinger, so we learn about his picking salt off pretzels and about his addiction to Kommissar Rex, a television series about a police dog Rex in the Viennese murder squad (now set in Rome in Italian rather than German).  Apart from these minutiae, we learn that he was once almost engaged, and more importantly of his views on the direction of the Catholic Church.   They discuss the decline of Christianity in the West (the number of nuns in Sister Brigetta’s convent has gone down from 90 to 15); changes in the Church’s doctrine; and the Catholic attitudes to divorces and homosexuality.   Pope Benedict’s attitude is conservative constancy.  He believes the Church should be an axis mundi, an unchanging centre for the world.  Nevertheless, he is conscious than some refer to him as “God’s Rottweiler”, guarding any move towards “modernisation”.  Indeed, when they sit down to share a simple (Bavarian) supper, the grace turns into a sermon. 

There is no real action in this scene, which seems a rather clunky method of back-story exposition, reminiscent of Mrs Drudge, whom Stoppard uses to satirise the expository opening in The Real Inspector Hound.  However, the production rises above this by virtue of its sparkling script and director James Dacre’s animation of the scene, making use of his highly experienced actors to keep dynamic yet natural movement.

Lynsey Beauchamp is completely right as Sister Brigitta, the nun who, whilst showing full deference to his elevated position, one feels really knows and understands Benedict.  She is clearly an old friend and confidant, cooks his favourite simple dishes and shares his homesickness for Bavaria.   Beauchamp delivers her opening lines in German with a perfect regional accent. 

It is to Brigitta that Benedict first makes known his intention to retire from the papacy.  He is unwell, needs a cardiac pacemaker, and suffers the fatigue of his 86 years.  But more so, he feels he is pushing against a tide of opposition to traditional constancies in the Catholic doctrine which he holds sacrosanct.  He would just like to go back to living a simple life in his homeland.  Sister Brigitta is appalled, as will be most of those multitudes of Catholics in the world when the news becomes public.  Christ did not resign, she says, but suffered until the end.  Benedict points out that he is much older.  Referring to his eight years as pope, he says, “Who else gets offered a new job at 78?”

It is unheard of for a pope to resign, at least in last seven centuries.  Popes do not resign, neither do cardinals.  Enter Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a third of the world away from Pope Benedict, both literally and certainly figuratively.  The extrovert Bergoglio is very different from the intellectual Benedict; his interests are football and tango-dancing.   Benedict is fastidious and somewhat vain.  Bergoglio wears scruffy old black shoes, instead of a cardinal’s red velvet slippers.  However, in one way they are the same: Bergoglio also wants to resign.  A Jesuit, he has embraced radical views, including the concept of liberation theology, but now takes a pragmatic view of social and political affairs.  His leadership role, into which he feels he does not fit, has become tiresome.  Hence, Bergoglio has written repeatedly to Pope Benedict to ask to resign his cardinalship, another unheard-of proposition.   Benedict has ignored his letters, fearing Bergoglio’s resignation might seem like a criticism of Benedict’s defence of age-held doctrine.

Bergoglio also has a confidant, a novice nun from Africa, Sister Sophia, who reluctantly assumes this responsibility following a communion service in a villa miseria, a shanty town in Buenos Aires.  We learn that he was once a bouncer in a tango-club and that he had had a girlfriend to whom he had proposed. “If the girl said ‘no’, I would become a priest.”  The girl said no.  We hear of his struggles against secular authority and against criminal coercion.  He believes that the Church must change and become relevant to a modern world. 

Leaphia Darko plays the ingénue Sister Sophia in marked contrast to Sister Brigitta, innocence against experience, matter-of-factness against rule-following, haphazardness against fussiness.  She crams the altar-cloth and the cardinal’s vestments unfolded into a holdall.  

Thus, the plot of The Two Popes is mirrored like one of those Rorschach-test inkblot images, beloved by psychologists.  Everything you see on the right is mirrored on the left.  We have another expository unloading of the back-story and another revelation of a prelate’s misgivings.  If this sounds like a negative criticism, it is not.  It is part of the neatly packaged storytelling.

The package is opened, with all its goodies, when Cardinal Bergoglio and Pope Benedict meet at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence, when the differences in temperament between the bookish intellectual conservative pope and the gregarious playful liberal cardinal become evident.  However, it is in the second half of The Two Popes that the play really comes into its own and becomes a gripping emotional thriller.

Anton Lesser as Pope Benedict XVI and Nicholas Woodeson as Cardinal Bergoglio are thespian colossi, who capture the stage in consummate performances, carrying along any weaknesses of the script.  Both roles are well-studied.   Lesser, sharp and beady-eyed, has the stoop and percussive gestures of the historic character he portrays, as does Woodeson with a twinkle-eyed vivacity and a distinct Latino-American accent. 

Lesser’s Benedict is a charismatic man who commands respects and sees himself beholden to maintaining the continuity of the institution he leads, an institution that is becoming eroded faster than he can control.  Although he plays Benedict as hard and stubborn, he allows the all-too-human side of the man to shine through. 

Cardinal Bergoglio is the converse in Woodeson’s hands.   His character has an innate charm and ostensibly is rather happy-go-lucky as a fan of tango and football fan.  However, we see a depth in a man who has seen much of the world, most not to his liking.

When they are back together in the Vatican, and the awkward small-talk has been put aside, the sinews of their respective thinking show through.  One thing they both agree on is that life has changed.  Benedict resists it, Bergoglio tries to direct it.

Already the Tridentine mass has been discussed.  Benedict sees the Latin liturgy as crucial for continuity, Bergoglio as an impediment to understanding.  Now discussion range into the church views on divorce and on same-sex relationships, on the child abuse scandals and on attitudes to oppressive regimes.

Although the dialogue is leavened with witticisms and many laugh-lines, there could be the danger of the expositions at the start of the play becoming a history lecture and this scene in the Vatican becoming a theology lecture.  However, Dacre’s direction avoids these pitfalls, and putting the climactic scene in the Sistine Chapel concentrates the dialogue.  The space of this iconic sanctuary becomes simultaneously both vast and yet intimate. 

It is here that the depths of the two men’s psyches are exposed.  Benedict admits “I find it hard to listen to God”.  Both confess to weaknesses.  Both had failed to tackle the abuse scandals involving their subordinates.  Both had shown weakness against totalitarian regimes, Benedict against the Third Reich, albeit when a teenager, Bergoglio in appeasing the Argentinian Junta.

When these admissions resolve into Catholic Confessions, each man on his knees, the effect is deeply moving, and one can feel the moment embracing the audience.

Can they embrace each other figuratively or literally?  They try to but never quite get there.  Nevertheless, Benedict does vote for Bergoglio, who becomes Pope Francis.  Benedict retires as Pope Emeritus.  Hence the two concurrent popes are still a reality to this day.

How much is fact in this play?  Who knows, it is merely a docudrama, but it makes for absolutely enthralling theatre.

The clear note it ends on is one of forgiveness, which is the essence of Christianity.  The two popes forgive each other and absolve each other in Confession.  Both popes live in the Vatican … and Christ said “love thy neighbour as thyself”.

Mark Aspen, September 2022

Photography by Manuel Harlan

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