This absorbing conspiracy theory / religious whodunnit tracks the tensions, crises of faith and political manoeuvrings of the people at the heart of the Vatican; a largely cold, scheming and perfidious group who make up the Curia and help the Pope govern the Catholic Church. The play starts with a meeting between an unknown Vatican emissary swathed in black whose identity is only revealed in a final plot twist, and the dying Cardinal Benelli, not the Pope but a Pope-maker. The drama takes the form of Benelli’s last confession, and as the sense of inevitable foreboding mounts, we see unfold in a series of extended flashbacks the mysterious events surrounding the death of Pope John Paul I.
In 1978 Pope Paul VI died, worn out from the dueling of his cardinals who in his fifteen years of rule had seen the Vatican become increasingly irrelevant to the world. In Roger Crane’s version of events, Benelli is the wheeler-dealer who swung the election in favour of the unlikely Bishop of Venice Albino Luciani, a gentle, pious and largely unremarkable man who cares more about people than about politics. Indeed, so unlikely is he that, as one of the cardinals observes, when it comes time for the coronation ceremony he is engulfed by his robes: “They made the garments in every size except his. No one had his measure.” Although a surprise choice, Pope Paul I turned out to be very much his own man, and started by abolishing the triple coronation that every pope before had had in favour of a simpler service. Before long he started to take an interest in running his diocese, a turn of events that the Cardinals with their vested interests, found distinctly threatening. Just 33 days into his reign, the man known as “the smiling Pope,” was found dead in bed, clutching not The Imitation of Christ, as the Vatican spin doctors initially claimed, but papers relating to Mafia-tainted banking scandals.
In his short period in power his liberal views on artificial birth control and against corrupt dictatorships supported by the US in South America had made him enemies. Was it mere coincidence that his end came just on the day he was getting rid of the most senior of the reactionary element of the Curia? Unease about his death rapidly gave rise to conspiracy theories in the Italian media when no autopsy was carried out, the Vatican refused an official investigation and their own press release about the death was shown to be largely inaccurate.
However, the play is less about who killed the Pope than about the corrupting nature of power, what is represented here is largely men playing little boys games in the corridors of the Vatican. As Benelli recounts his guilt at failing to give John Paul I the support to fight off the sharks in the Curia and at agreeing to curtail the investigation when tempted with the prospect of his own pontificate, what is illustrated for us is an intriguing dilemma: how can one reconcile a power struggle with a life lived in God’s service? Are power and performing Christ’s ministry reconcilable? Set entirely in the Vatican, an organization that operates largely behind closed doors, William Dudley’s elaborate set design conveys the atmosphere of this most secretive of organizations perfectly. The iron grills, stone arches and fragments of frescos, immediately evoke both the sumptuous luxury of the Vatican as well as the captivity for those within it. The scene changes came about by the rotating of doors which are on cage-style screens and this never ending series of shut doors (usually five on stage at any one time) visually represents not only a place where tradition holds things back but also the idea of a revolving door – through which an endless procession of men gain and lose power.
The cast is strong, filled with accomplished character actors at the top of their trade. David Suchet (TV’s Poirot) provides a solid performance as Benelli, a man fraught with contradictions, who had he gained five more votes, would have become pontiff in succession to John Paul I, and who freely acknowledges his own fierce ambition, even as he wrestles with what is right for the Catholic Church. His crisis of faith is fascinating to watch. Richard O’Callaghan is impressive as Luciani, and taking cues from his character, his performance sneaks up on the audience to reach new heights worthy of merit. The script, although containing some flashes of dry humor, (as when the new Pope informs one of the Vatican mafia that he is being sent away to Venice, the cardinal replies: “I’d sooner go to hell.” “I think that can be arranged,” replies the Pope with a sweet smile), is at times overly melodramatic. This coupled with the at times syrupy music made it seem more like a made-for-tv movie than a play being performed in front of my eyes. Unfortunately, the fact that Hercule Poirot himself played the leading role, and the easy comparison to a Vatican-set Agatha Christie (made by the director himself in the programme notes) did not help matters. Having said that, the second half of the night picked up momentum. Overcoming the initial name-dropping intricacies necessary to set the play into motion, the story was rather gripping once I got into it, more subtle than most conspiracy theories and amounting to more than a mere religious whodunit. My only critique would be the dramatic finale fire – while extremely impressive, I was so intent on the flame that I missed the climactic final line and have been wondering about it ever since.
Altogether this is an intelligent and engaging night out which shows how far the church is from what it claims to be. It left me meditating about faith, the elusive nature of truth and what might have been if John Paul I’s flame had not been blown out.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "A beguiling theatrical whodunnit." SAM MARLOWE for THE TIMES says, "When the powerplay between well-drawn characters is as finely acted as here, it grips."
External links to full reviews from popular press