by Lynn on May 1, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

The Last Confession

At the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Written by Roger Crane. Directed by Jonathan Church. Set by William Dudley. Lighting by Peter Mumford. Costumes by Fotini Dimou. Music composed by Dominic Muldowney. Sound by Chris Cronin. Starring: Nigel Bennett, Kevin Colson, Philip Craig, Sheila Ferris, David Ferry, Roy Lewis, Suart Milligan, Richard O’Callaghan, John O’May, David Suchet.

A rip-roaring mystery about whether or not Pope John Paul I was murdered or died of natural causes, given a snappy, brisk production with David Suchet as the star. Well worth a look.

The Story. The Vatican, 1978. These are tricky times in that holy city. Cardinals are power hungry, rather than being hungry to be pious and penitent. Shady politics are rife and there’s some strange goings on with the Vatican bank. People mixed up with the mafia are involved somehow with its business. Pope Paul VI has just died and the cardinals have elected a compromise candidate—Cardinal Albino Luciani—to be the new Pope, Pope John Paul I. He proves to be a liberal Pope who eschews all the pomp and ceremony for more humble behaviour. He looks to make a sweep of the entrenched cardinals who like their cushy positions of power. But in his 33rd day in the job John Paul suddenly dies. The quickness with which his body is buried with no autopsy or investigation, his possessions removed, and the reluctance of any of the cardinals to want to go further, make Cardinal Giovanni Benelli very suspicious. He appears to be one of the more honourable Cardinals. He is also a power broker and was responsible for making Luciani Pope. Now he wants to find out the truth about Luciani’s death. It’s a formidable task with much opposition.

The Production. We smell incense as soon as we enter the theatre. The curtain is up and the beautifully stark set is in full view. Set designer William Dudley has created several moveable panels made of what looks like iron slats, that suggest the filigree of the inside of the Vatican. Beams of white light illuminate the shadowy gloom of the Vatican. Immediately we are in a murky word where secrets are kept and rumours are rife.

Cardinal Benelli sits alone at his desk, resplendent in his red silk robes. He is writing his last confession. He is ill. He keeps clutching his chest, popping pills and feeling the pain ease. Obviously heart trouble. He is visited by his official confessor. The confession leads us into the intrigue of the Vatican.

Intrigue is everywhere. Everybody seems to know something on someone else or they can find out the truth and hold it against someone. And Benelli knows everything about everybody. To suggest a change of a scene characters move the panels around and reposition them in different configurations. Characters move quickly and quietly around those gloomy corridors.

I note that the cast is tall except for David Suchet as Cardinal Benelli and Richard O’Callaghan as Cardinal Luciani, later Paul I. I think this is deliberate on the part of director Jonathan Church. They play characters trying to find their way through the murky waters of all the politics. In the case of Cardinal Benelli, being towered over by a tall Cardinal can be rather dramatic when Benelli’s nibble mind and wit hack his opponents down to size. In the case of Luciani, later Pope Paul I, you get the sense of how overwhelming it must have been for Luciani in that situation. Here was a decent man trying to do well in a job he did not want, and he is surrounded by giants of mendacity and deceit.

Church does an interesting thing when Luciani is being dressed as Pope. It’s done with his back to us. All the pomp and ceremony and the order of the garments are done for the most part so that we can’t see it. We do see the finished product and that’s the point of the scene—this Pope is small, rumpled and so anxious about a job he doesn’t want, it’s in your face. By keeping the look of the man hidden from us until the very last minute, it’s a stunning revelation when he turns to face us.

When Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope after John Paul I died he was dressed facing the audience. We could see the look on his face—not worried—and the grandness of the occasion.

David Suchet and Richard O’Callaghan are accomplished actors and certainly Suchet is better known for Hercule Poirot. As Benelli, Suchet is direct, formidable in his arguments, not intimidated by anyone, but still troubled because he knows he has lost his faith in the church and in God. He is consumed with guilt for not helping Luciani when he needed it most. Suchet is also fearless as Benelli. Benelli never backs down from a fight and he has some major ones especially with Cardinal Villot who disposed of the body of John Paul I much too fast not to be suspicious.

Richard O’Callaghan is replacing an ailing Brian Bedford in the part of Luciani and for the rest of the world tour. O’Callaghan first did the part in 2007 when I first saw it in London. He is a lovely actor and plays Luciani stooped; serious about doing the job; anxious to made a difference, but obviously ground down by the work and the responsibility.

As Cardinal Villot, Nigel Bennett is confident, sneering, impatient with the meddlers like Luciani and Benelli, and yet has a command of the room. With Luciani the arguments, accusations and invective come fast and furious.

A quibble. The actors are hugely accomplished. They come from Canada, Britain, the US and Australia. All are excellent. All can fill a room with their voices. Why then are they all microphoned? So that the audience can hear them better? Ridiculous. We have a generation etc. of people who don’t listen rather than don’t hear. Having those actors miced is an insult to everybody. It’s not enough that people can rent those hearing devices, now someone thinks the cast should be miced too? Ridiculous.

Comment. The Last Confession is a dandy play written by Roger Crane—a lawyer! His first play. The arguments are deeply thought, smart, intricate, full of implication. Taking a known story and then riffing on it to produce this mystery with a suspicious death in it is a daring entry into the world of theatre. Crane pulled it off with style.

The play is also being given a compelling production. It’s a world many of us don’t know, but through the theatre we get a pretty good emersion into that world.

Presented by Mirvish Productions.

Opened: April 27, 2014
Closes: June 1, 2014
Cast: 20: 19 men, 1 (brave) woman.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, with an intermission.

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