It was Sunday afternoon when a congregation of theatre goers converged on the Royal Alexandra to listen in on The Last Confession. The hushed crowd sat looking in on the beautifully dark, almost haunting set by William Dudley.
The confessor here is Cardinal Giovanni Benelli played by the iconic David Suchet. He relates the story of the political machinations and private plotting behind the doors of the Vatican. Specifically, Benelli at the end of his life, is plagued by the memory of his friend, Albino Luciani (Richard O’Callaghan) the ill-fated and short lived Pope John Paul I.
The Catholic Church of course has been plagued by scandals and secrecy throughout the ages. This story represents one in particular and asks one major question. What is the truth behind the suspicious sudden death of John Paul I? The Pope was found dead in his bed a mere 33 days after being elected and hours after having informed three of his most dubious opposing Cardinals they were to be replaced. The Vatican refused to launch an official investigation into his death, hastily buried his body and fabricated many parts of his death reports.
If others can be deemed king makers, Benelli was perhaps, a Pope maker. Confession at times felt like part Scandal (Benelli as the male Olivia Pope perhaps) and part liquefied Dan Brown. Penned by Roger Crane, his first half feels long winded without enough drama to keep the mind from wandering. This is a long confession and at times it feels like the audience is paying the penance for the play’s sins. Admittedly the second half does really liven up once presented with the Pope’s sudden death and too many people with motives.
The cast of Confession are almost all international actors which was nice and somewhat reflective of the Vatican’s true-to-life ensemble which represents Bishops and Cardinals from around the world. O’Callaghan (originally not scheduled to play Luciani) was simply wonderful as the “Smiling Pope,” having reprised the role he created in the London production. His presence on stage was refreshing and felt honest. One can’t help but compare him to the current Pontif, Francis, also known for his easy smile and wanting to establish reform and more transparency in the Church.
Suchet is a convincing Benelli. He displays many depths of emotion throughout—penitent, doubting, imploring, angry, tired, remorseful. Benelli suffers the same hubris as the others, power hungry and thrilled by the idea of wielding political power in the Vatican. He is unrelenting and uncaring as to whose feathers he ruffles, he is singular in his attempts at placing his friend on the throne and then at bringing down his adversaries.
Donald Douglas as Pope Paul VI, Luciani’s predecessor, plays a perfectly staunch role and is the polar opposite of JPI. The other players of the power politics that takes place on stage are Nigel Bennet who is spot on throughout as Cardinal Villot, and I was appropriately chilled each time John May as Cardinal Felici, with his deep voice and large presence was on stage.
The lighting by Peter Mumford is appropriately dim as if to help conceal the secrets the Vatican harbours and combined with the set it makes one feel as though there might be someone lurking around any corner.
The Last Confession does make one ponder what did in truth happen to John Paul I. I felt that it was filled with power politics and religious intrigue, yet in a post Dan Brown era, people may want more of the fantastic and the flashy big drama.
A confession of course is meant to be between the confessor, priest and the Lord. Isn’t it ironic then that a whole mass of people were there to listen, watch and judge. Overall, we left not with a penance, but a mystery to ponder.
The Last Confession is on stage now at The Royal Alexandra Theatre. For more information or tickets, please visit: www.Mirvish.com