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.

Pinter at Pinter 5 review ***

Pinter at Pinter Five: The Room/Victoria Station/Family Voices

Harold Pinter Theatre, 26th January 2019

The weakest of the Pinter at Pinter season IMHO though still well worth seeing. Not the fault of the cast with Rupert Graves in particular on top form. Maybe the plays; The Room is Pinter’s first ever play, from 1957 written for Bristol University students whilst Family Voices was written for the radio in 1981. Then again this hasn’t been a stumbling block in earlier instalments. The Room bears all the hallmarks of later Pinter and a setting familiar from the next, truly great, work, The Birthday Party, and the creative team have found a convincing way to transfer the imaginings of the lonely, young man holed up in a boarding house in Family Voices on to the stage.

The themes? As in the rest of the season Jamie Lloyd and his guest directors have intelligently drawn out links between the works in each instalment which have illuminated HP’s wider concerns: language, meaning, memory, (mis-)communication, anxiety, class, the state, power and control. The dislocation between what we think and what we do. There is often something “out there”, from past or present, beyond the claustrophobic confines of the setting, which might intrude in some way. The two main plays here share a similar marginal, transitory location, and a whiff of Proustian recollection, and contrast the present, minatory situation with some other “safer” time and place. (There must be some auteur somewhere who has the reputation and cojones to bring The Proust Screenplay to cinematic life).

In The Room, Jane Horrocks plays Rose Hudd, babbling nervously, mostly about how “warm” the room is compared to the “cold” outside, to her taciturn “husband” Bert (Rupert Graves) in their one room bedsit in a boarding house. We never quite know why she is so tense, ever after the jagged conversation she has with equally garrulous landlord Mr Kidd (Nicholas Woodeson) before and after Bert heads off in his “van”. Rose is then interrupted by Mr and Mrs Sands (Luke Thallon and Emma Naomi) who are ostensibly looking for a flat and, specifically, the landlord. They describe a blind, black man, Riley, (Colin McFarlane) they have seen in the basement who then enters to deliver a message from Rose’s “father”. Bert returns, rapidly describes his trip out in a sexually aggressive way, and violently turns on Riley. See what I mean? It couldn’t be written by anyone else right? It took HP just two days to create it and thereby change the course of world theatre and subsequently give employment to countless academics. No longer did a playwright have to “know” where his or her characters came from or where they were going.

In Family Voices Luke Thallon is given the task of impersonating the various characters which inhabit the boarding house in the “letters” he composes in his head to his mother, an on stage Jane Horrocks, who complains that her own letters to him are unanswered. These include a sexually forward young woman and a threatening bloke called, wait for it, Riley. Also present here, from beyond the grave, is the young man’s father, whose death hangs over the mother-son relationship, played by Rupert Graves. No major key ending here though.

Victoria Station played here as more “straight” comedy as Colin McFarlane plays a minicab controller growing ever more exasperated by the gnomic responses of driver “274” Rupert Graves. The driver is plainly marooned, lost both physically and mentally, but his fear is played down in this interpretation.

Interestingly the audience at the matinee the Tourist attended, (a packed house showing just how well received the season has been, albeit with a bit of judicious re-pricing), was most animated in Victoria Station. Unsurprising given the laughs, but the rapt attention that characterised say, Moonlight, Landscape or A Slight Ache didn’t seem to quite be there. The difference I think lies in the direction. Pinter Five was given to Patrick Marber. Mr Marber is an excellent writer, especially his original work, and can be an inspirational director, notably of his own adaptations. But Pinter needs something special to really take off and PM is not quite on a par with Jamie Lloyd IMHO. It’s something to do with pacing and rhythm I think though I have no idea how to put its into words. Mind you PM got the HP seal of approval directly so what do I know.

Still even as probably the least convincing of the season, there was still much to feast upon, (enjoy isn’t really the right way to describe it), and some first class acting from Ms Horrocks and Mr Graves. Can’t wait for Betrayal.