Theatre review: The Two Popes

Words by Melissa Blease
Theatre Royal Bath until 29 October

“The only condition for the validity of my resignation is the complete freedom of my decision. Further speculations regarding its validity are simply absurd.”

Who said it? It could have been Liz Truss – or maybe Boris Johnson.Or what about Sajid Javid… or Jacob Rees-Mogg in his handwritten letter? Wrong, on all counts.

Those words formed the start of the statement issued by Pope Benedict XVI via the Vatican Press Office on February 11 2013. A Pope – head of the Catholic Church, Sovereign of the Vatican City State – resign? Unheard of! Well, in modern times, at least; Celestine V did it in 1294, as did Gregory XII 121 years later. But the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. And so it came to pass that, just under a decade ago, the reigning Supreme Pontiff – known to be a traditionalist of great intellect – declared time was up on his Supreme Pontiffity and threw the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven into the ring. 

After a month-long debate behind the closed doors of the Vatican, Jorge Mario Bergoglio – a one-time tango club bouncer known to be a non-conformist extrovert (and football fan) – was elected pope on 13 March 2013, taking the Papal name Francis in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi… and staunchly refusing to swap his beloved black shoes for the crimson footwear that traditionally formed part of the Papal regalia as a sign of  humility and austerity.

Above: Nicholas Woodeson as Cardinal Bergoglio and Anton Lesser as Pope Benedict XVI in The Two Popes | Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

While Anthony McCarten’s 2019 drama (originally simply called The Pope before being adapted into director Fernando Meirelles’ film version The Two Popes that premiered in the same year) doesn’t actually reveal anything more than we already know (or have been told, at least) about the machinations behind Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign, it’s by no means an unsatisfying drama.

The angels are at work from the off in designer Jonathan Fensom’s elegantly versatile set which takes us to and from the inner sanctums of the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel and Pope Benedict XVI’s private rooms, constantly evoking a beautifully-balanced sense of time, place and symbolism. But the Devil (sorry!) is in the detail: Lighting Designer Charles Balfour’s projections (Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco in particular) and composer Anne Dudley’s smart, evocative soundscapes offer apt ethereality at key moments.

Both Anton Lesser (as Pope Benedict XVI) and Nicholas Woodeson (Pope Francis) carry their roles with ease and grace as they adapt to each other’s idiosyncratic personalities, antithetical attitudes and contrasting ethical values. McCarten’s script carries a deep sense of humanity that neither guides the audience to ‘take sides’ nor pushes a personal perspective on the dogma of the Catholic church and, despite their clear differences, both his Popes are likeable, humane, witty, astute and very, very mortal. At times, however, you may find yourself wishing for some sparky debate, or a tad more tangible conflict between the two men? Ah, but perhaps I’m being too secular, too modern, too  salacious in my taste for tumult; we’re ultimately on transcendent territory here, and The Two Popes most definitely serves a worldly purpose in taking an audience at least some of the way ‘behind the scenes’ of one of the world’s most powerful, secretive institutions, McCarten’s distinct lack of censure or disdain for the subject at the heart of the matter ultimately making it all the more refreshing. 

So! Why and how did Jorge Mario Bergoglio become Pope Francis? He told the world all we need to know on his election: miserando atque eligendo. And that’s probably all we’ll ever be told…

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Featured image: Anton Lesser as Pope Benedict XVI and Angela Jones in The Two Popes