When is a precedent not a precedent? When it happened in 1295. No, it’s not a riddle, it’s the crux of Pope Benedict XVI’s predicament when he wanted to abdicate – to resign from the papacy – in 2013 and leave the way for his successor Pope Francis, who had come second in the decision making process to create the new Pope back in 2005.
We all know that person at work who has been promoted way beyond their ability to do the job, but because they were in the right place at the right time, said the right things and had the right smile, they got the gig. That was Josef Ratzinger, when he was elected Pope at the age of 78, when all he really wanted to do was to retire softly into the background, read his books and maybe do a little writing. Lucky too, for Cardinal Bergoglio, runner-up in the process, who also was content with his work with the poor of Buenos Aires. Now he, at the age of 77, has written to the Pope to tender his resignation as Bishop, so that he can spend his twilight days watching football and singing to Abba. But the Pope has not responded to his letters, but has asked him to visit him in the Vatican. The Cardinal assumes it’s to accept his resignation in person, but the Pope has other ideas…
This is a beautifully written play, full of wit and insight, superbly character-driven; a window into the lives of two religious leaders whom we would assume would spend their time in contemplation and duty, rather than catching up on TV soaps and looking forward to the World Cup. The Pope’s agonising self-doubt about his own worth, and his successor’s own murky involvement with his country’s corrupt government are brought starkly into the light by Anthony McCarten’s moving, crisp, heartfelt text; and Jonathan Fensom’s design is formal and uncluttered, reflecting the rich grandeur of the Office but also the self-denial of its Officers.
Anton Lesser is simply magnificent as the old, unhappy Pope; filled with uncertainty, deprived of the lifestyle he would have chosen, his occasionally faltering speech revealing the depth of his problems and his humanity. Germanic to the core, reserved in outlook, the height of his self-indulgence is delighting in a Suppe mit Knödel. He is matched by Nicholas Woodeson as Bergoglio, with his fiery Latin temperament, a tendency towards impatience and impetuosity, a man who would get his hands dirty in practical work as opposed to the Pope’s more cerebral approach. Together they give us an acting masterclass of immaculate timing and expression, the like of which you very rarely see.
Excellent support is given by Lynsey Beauchamp as Sister Brigitta, Benedict’s lone confidante and friend, and Faith Alabi as Sister Sophia, Bergoglio’s assistant at the Convent in Buenos Aires. But it’s the gripping tension between the two Popes that takes your breath away; the power struggle, the influencing, the confessions, the opposing positions and finally the meeting of minds. Probably the best modern play that I’ve ever seen at the Royal Theatre, definitely with two of the best performances of the decade. It would be a Cardinal Sin if this doesn’t have a life hereafter.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan