The London premiere of The Two Popes took place this week at the Rose Theater in Kingston upon Thames. Previously staged in 2019 at the Royal and Derngate Theater Northampton, Covid 19 ended a planned run. Written by Anthony McCarten who also wrote the screenplay for the hit film, starring Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis, it explores the relationship between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio and the resignation of the pope in 2013.
Although Anton Lesser and Nicholas Woodeson are good actors, they are hampered by an inadequate script that seeks to make people laugh easily rather than delve into the serious subjects such as clerical abuse and the financial scandal they raise.
There seems to be a deplorable lack of research into Catholic sacramental practice – for example a plastic Madonna on the altar set up for Mass! No priest, whether cardinal or pope, would walk around during confession, nor would a nun scoff at sacramental confession. A nun crumpling an altar cloth instead of neatly folding it is another of many annoying anachronisms.
There are moments between the leads that indicate what the play might have been, mostly due to Nicholas Woodeson’s excellent performance as an Argentinian who lived simply and was loved by the poor. He held positions as a nightclub bouncer, lab technician, and cleaner before joining the Jesuits. As pope, he shunned papal grandeur and the lace, thrift stores and red Gucci shoes espoused by Benedict. The two popes here reveal in imaginary conversations and mutual confessions a torturous doubt about their past – Benedict’s youth in Nazi Germany and Bergoglio’s relationship with the oppressive junta regime. Both lament the difficult problems facing the Church.
The former academic, Cardinal Ratzinger was a noted cat lover – he used to roam the streets of Rome when he was cardinal to rescue stray animals. Even after becoming pope, he tried to return to his apartment incognito to feed the city’s felines. However, it seems that dogs interest him because of a television program that obsesses him. He was a great friend of Pope John Paul II – he would never have criticized him as depicted here, accusing him of theatrics – he admired him.
The use of digital images projected onto the arch of the Proscenium to indicate scene and decor changes is most effective, particularly the gardens of Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence.
In short, a bit of curate’s egg, good in part!
The run time should be two hours and five minutes, but on press night it exceeded, mainly due to a slow start. The opening was also overwhelmed by loud music erasing Anton Lessers’ reflections.
The show runs until September 23, before filming, so it has a chance to overcome some of its weaknesses. The invited audience seemed to love it and gave an enthusiastic encore. If I hadn’t been so aware of the glaring Catholic inaccuracies in the staging, the play might have been more satisfying and I might have enjoyed the sweet humor more.
Benedict XVI’s resignation has stunned the world and with rumors that Pope Francis himself may be considering such a move, this production comes at just the right time – but it hasn’t quite hit the mark yet.
Until September 23. Then tour at the following venues: Cambridge Arts Theater
September 27 – October 1; Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham 4-8 October; Royal & Derngate, Northampton October 11-15; Oxford Playhouse from October 18 to 22; Theater Royal Bath 25-29 October
Other dates may be added.