The Pope at the Royal and Derngate review ****

The Pope

Royal and Derngate Theatre Northampton, 13th June 2019

I suspect Kiwi Anthony McCarten has trousered a few quid in the last fewyears. What with writing the screenplay for The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody. But he has returned to his roots with this play, The Pope. Well maybe not exactly since this is actually going to end up as a film, released later this year, entitled Two Popes,(which to be fair is a more literally correct title), and starring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins. Whether these two titans of the stage and screen will match their two peers on show here in Northampton will likely be moot but I can report that this is a cracking story which, whilst packing a powerful dramatic punch, will likely benefit from the expanded breadth and location that film can bring.

Particularly in the first half of the story. The Pope takes the real life “abdication” of Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, (Anton Lesser) who is then succeeded by the current Pope Francis, Jorge Bergoglio, (Nicholas Woodeson), to contrast the conservative and liberal theological and practical viewpoints in the Catholic Church. When the two meet, after PBXVI summons PF to Rome to tell him of his intention, we get a good old fashioned dualistic debate which, in the hands of AL and and NW is absolutely gripping. In the first half however, when we get to see how each of them “got to where they are now” practically and philosophically, each with the help of a nun sidekick, the theatre is a good bit clunkier.

Even so it is pretty easy to see why Mr McCarten is such a good writer for the screen. There is, once we are into the swing of things, some sparkling dialogue and some properly powerful ding-dong. You don’t have to be a student of the Catholic Church or of religion generally to get the arguments. Of course it helps that Ratzinger is a buttoned up German, brought up in Nazi Germany, and a stickler for tradition, God’s Rottweiler as he was dubbed. He is devoted to Mozart, cabaret and some dog based soap opera (!). Bergoglio in contrast was a football loving, tango dancing Argentinian whose liberation theology was forged during the very dark days of the junta. He has a playful sense of humour, likes The Beatles and, I reckon, an eye for the ladies. And he becomes the first Jesuit Pope.

The regular reader of this blog will know that the Tourist takes a very dim view of organised religion in all its forms, (though he is somewhat hypocritically a massive fan of Christian art and architecture). And those Catholics seem to still be so f*cked up about sex. And cannot seem to confront the stain of abuse. All this angst though provides the ruminative material for Mr McCarten’s thoroughly researched, though speculative, text. The way that the contrasts between the two also highlight their similarities, such that antagonism and suspicion eventually resolves into mutual respect for each other and the bedrock of their shared faith, is a tale as old as the hills. After all it is Ratzinger who wants to break with 700 years of tradition and resign rather than die with his boots on in the Vatican.

Of course whilst Mr McCarten has the knack of drawing you in and pumping you up, he can’t resist, as those familiar with the films above will know, turning the emotional hyperbole dial up to 11. But whilst this occasionally grates it is easily forgiven especially when delivered by two actors of this calibre. I have no idea how Nicholas Woodeson has plotted his career through stage and screen. Maybe he just does what ever he fancies. But he is always bang on the money. Anton Lesser may have more of a classical bent, and I have some very fond early memories of him on the RSC stage, but he is similarly brilliant in whatever he does. It was genuinely thrilling to see him back in a theatre. Watching the two of them knock seven bells out of each other philosophically and then make up in some sort of liturgical bromance was delicious. And all this for less than a tenner.

Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins will have their work cut out to top this even if one might argue they are even bigger draws. (For my money Anton Lesser and Jonathan Pryce, along with Diana Rigg, Charles Dance and Stephen Dillane, were the very best of the illustrious bunch that showed the way to the newbies in GOT).

Even with these two leads and peppy script the play needed direction though and once again James Dacre was the man for the job. I guess having Paul Dace as your Dad, going to Eton, then Cambridge, and an intensive spell in US theatre, was never going to be a recipe for doubt or apprehension but you still have to admire the young man’s ambition. He may have inherited a space and a legacy from previous AD Laurie Sansom but even so it is easy to see why the R&D continues to scoop regional theatre awards. It might not be too much of a trek for the Tourist from the Smoke to Northampton but for theatre of this quality he would happily sit on a train for hours. Just take this 2019 Made in Northampton season. So far Our Lady of Kibeho (en route to Theatre Royal Straford), the terrific adaptation of The Remains of the Day., a belting Ghosts, Headlong’s Richard III with Tom Mothersdale. Just opening Complicite’s The Last of the Pelican Daughters. To come August Wilson’s Two Trains Running and A View From The Bridge to add to the R&D’s Miller stable. I assume the R&D makes a decent enough turn from all the touring of its productions but I strongly recommend if Northampton is anywhere near you you come join us old folk who still dominate and swell the coffers further.

Whilst the two female supporting roles of Sister Brigitta and Sister Sophia largely serve as devices to illuminate the Popes’ back stories Faith Alabi and Lynsey Beauchamp are as committed as the leads. And no expense has been spared on the elegant set and costumes courtesy of Jonathan Fensom, the lighting and sound designs of Charles Balfour and David Gregory respectively and even the composition from Anne Dudley and the video from Duncan McLean. There is nothing that would look out of place here on St Martins Lane. Who knows maybe after the film, (and the book, did I mention that?), that is precisely where it well end up.

The Height of the Storm at Richmond Theatre review ****

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The Height of the Storm

Richmond Theatre, 5th September 2018

I can’t deny that Florian Zeller is a gifted playwright. I am just not sure his work is for me. I saw The Father at this very house in 2016 with Kenneth Cranham in the lead role. Centering on an old fella with Alzheimers allowed Mr Zeller acres of space to deploy his trademark philosophical musings and play games with time and memory. Mr Cranham was great but all that deliberating about what you could and could not believe got a bit samey after a while.

Well he, and his translator Christopher Hampton, are at it again in The Height of the Storm. The nature of memory, the effects of ageing, the making of self, the cracks in a family, all are confronted again, but here set against a love story. Jonathan Pryce is Andre, a retired writer, who has been married to Madeleine, played by Eileen Atkins, for five decades. They live in a large country house in provincial France. Divorced daughter Annie (Amanda Drew) arrives for the weekend. It looks like she is pushing for the house to be sold. Later on younger daughter Elise (Anna Madeley) also pitches up with current estate agent boyfriend (James Hillier) in tow.  A bunch of flowers is delivered. A neighbour and apparent long-standing “friend” of Andre played by Lucy Cohu pops in. But it isn’t very long before we begin to wonder if Madeleine is really there or whether disorientated Andre just imagines her presence and whether the cosy conversations they are having are simply the memories of his now dead wife. Or maybe it is the other way round?

Mr Zeller quite rightly recognises that theatre is all about suspending rationality and playing games with “truth”. And Height of the Storm certainly messes with your head. He writes beautifully but presenting such uncertainty made me, well, uncertain about whether this was entirely satisfying. However the play certainly creates an atmosphere. The set design of Anthony Ward, the kitchen of the family home, is exquisite. The lighting and sound designs of Hugh Vanstone and Paul Groothuis respectively are equally ravishing. Obviously director Jonathan Kent is exemplary – this sort of drama is his meat and drink. And I could watch Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins all day. Mr Pryce exactly shows us how Andre is lost without Madeleine and Ms Atkins in turn shows Madeleine’s fortitude. Florian Zeller was inspired to write the play when he saw an elderly couple cling together as they crossed a road from the window of a Paris hotel on the day of his own wedding. They had become “one being” and that is exactly what the play conjures up and these two masterly actors portray. The desolation of losing the one you love.

There is something powerful at work here and if you want to see two outstanding stage actors at the top of their game, (supported by excellent supporting performances), effortlessly directed then this is for you. At 90 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Just be prepared though for that “what was going on there then” feeling as you leave.