The Two Popes

FOOTBALL fans have now become so fanatical in their support for their team that they very rarely allow themselves the pleasure of admiring top-quality performances and skill if it comes from the opposing team. In so doing, they rob themselves of a tremendous amount of enjoyment and satisfaction.
Theatre audiences, although they may have a favourite player in a show, are far less blinkered, and apart from some juke box musical fans suffering from tunnel vision, keep a much more open mind, ready to admire quality when they see it.
On the face of it the imagined story of why the intellectual and ultraconservative Pope Benedict XV1 broke with a 700-year-old tradition, resigning while in office, making way for the more radical Jorge Bergoglio to become Pope Francis, is hardly going to make riveting theatre, especially when you consider that playwright Anthony McCarten’s script creates for the most part, a two hander.
When the two men are played by actors with the finely-honed skills of Anton Lesser (Benedict) and Nicholas Woodeson (Francis), who, with the delicacy of brain surgeons, explore the minds and souls of The Two Popes, the story becomes a fascinating one to watch and listen to.
The clash of personalities between the classical music loving theologian Benedict, a rather humourless German-born man – “that’s a German joke so does not have to be funny” – and the risk-taking, tango dancing, football loving Argentinian born Francis, appear to make it impossible for the one to resign leaving the way clear for the other to replace him.
The one minute understated, the next consumed with violent passion that Lesser and Woodeson convey to reveal their inner thoughts, confessing their past mistakes, and hopes for their own future and the Church they both love despite its many faults, was fascinating to observe. Sitting in virtual silence throughout, the audience hardly dares to take a breath for fear of missing the next twist in the story as told by author Anthony McCarten. We see none of the horse trading that undoubtedly went on, as Benedict retires to become Emeritus Pope and Francis dons the robes of Pope. Instead we are given an insight into the agonising that both men went through before they could accept what realistically was the only option open to both of them.
You have to make up your own mind as to how accurate a picture of Benedict and Francis, and the way in which they exchanged positions, a picture that does not hesitate to reveal many faults within the Roman Catholic Church, and past misdemeanours.
Could Benedict have done more to rectify those faults and will Francis do more in the future – all the facts and imaginings of The Two Popes are laid savagely bare by Anton Lesser and Nicholas Woodeson, under James Dacre’s violin-string-tight direction.
Almost devoid of props and with the minimum of fuss, designer Jonathan Fensom and lighting designer Charles Balfour, convert the stage from intimate private quarters to the beauty of the Sistine Chapel. Lynsey Beauchamp (Sister Brigitta) and Leaphia Darko (Sister Sophia) unobtrusively allow Benedict and Francis to fill in the gaps in their background with their unselfish portraits of the popes’ aids and confidantes.
With dashes of sly humour mixed in with fierce passionate outbursts, the finished article has the smoothness of a much-loved cocktail, and is a production that any theatre connoisseur will not want to miss.


Posted in Reviews on .