Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Last Confession, Sept 3, 2014 ****

Written by Roger Crane
Produced by Triumph Entertainment Ltd (Paul Elliott & Duncan C.Weldon), The Theatre Royal Haymarket and Karl Sydow; Tinderbox Productions (Liza McLean)
At Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, Sept 3 to 21, 2014 (then Sydney from Sept 24) 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert  
Stars: ****
Review also published in Herald Sun online today, Thurs Sept 4, 2014. Review will be in print on Sunday, Sept 7, 2014 in Sunday Herald Sun. KH
All photos on this blog by Joe Calleri. 
 David Suchet as Cardinal Giovanni Benelli; photo by Joe Calleri.

It makes one’s spirit soar to witness the consummate performance of David Suchet and the distinguished cast of actors in Jonathan Church’s sleek production of The Last Confession.

The play extrapolates on events in The Vatican before and after the election and mysteriously sudden death of Pope John Paul I in 1978, 33 days after he was elected Pope and before he could implement his radical, liberal reforms of the Catholic Church.

Suchet plays Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, a serious, businesslike, Catholic moderate who struggles with doubts about his faith and challenges the intransigent conservatism of the cardinals who dominate the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy that advises the Pope.

Suchet enlivens the role with the full force of his resonant, dark-velvet voice and piercing gaze that we recognise from screen performances such as the meticulous detective, Hercule Poirot, and the villainous terrorist in Executive Decision.

Providing a narrative framework for Roger Crane’s play is Benelli’s fictional confession to The Confessor who is played with a slightly sinister, critical edge by Philip Craig.

Benelli’s confession acts as a narration that tracks the trajectory of events from the last year of Pope Paul VI (Donald Douglas), to the election of Albino Luciani (Richard O’Callaghan) as Pope John Paul I, and the associated power struggles, reform agendas and financial corruption of the Vatican Bank.

The Vatican refuses to investigate Luciani’s death, but with the determination of a terrier – or perhaps of a Poirot – Benelli persists in his quest for the truth, partly to assuage his own guilt because he propelled Luciani into the papacy against his will.

Crane, an American lawyer and first-time playwright, challenges issues of morality in religion, the role of the church, its relationship to its people, attitudes to faith, reform and power.

The script is intelligent and its premise inspired, but it relies heavily on telling rather than showing which sometimes makes it verbose and didactic with repetitive dialogue.

A highlight of Church’s production is O’Callaghan’s compelling, sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of Luciani, who he plays as a sweet-natured, simple, compassionate man of God who alienates the archconservatives with his determination to instigate the Vatican II reforms.

There are twenty accomplished British, Canadian and Australian actors in this cast, but perhaps special accolades may be given to Nigel Bennett as the rigid traditionalist, Cardinal Villot, and Australian John O’May who plays Cardinal Felici with a cool but dangerous reserve.

Stuart Milligan is suitably brash and confrontational as the dodgy, American financial manager, Marcinkus, and Kevin Colson is infuriatingly elitist as old Cardinal Baggio.

William Dudley’s design is gorgeously opulent, echoing the luxuriant reds and grim ironwork of the Vatican, while Fotini Dimou’s costumes are splendidly ornate.

This thought-provoking production deserves attention not only because of the presence of the renowned Suchet, but also because of its moral and political commentary and its relevance to current issues surrounding the Catholic Church.

 By Kate Herbert

Cast includes:
David Suchet as Cardinal Giovanni Benelli   
From the UK: Richard O’Callaghan (Cardinal Albino Luciani) Bernard Lloyd (Cardinal Ottavani)  and Sheila Ferris (Sister Vincenza)
From Canada: Nigel Bennett (Cardinal Villot) and Phillip Craig (The Confessor),
From Australia: John O’May (Cardinal Felici)  George Spartels (Cardinal Lorsheider).

Photo by Joe Calleri

Photo by Joe Calleri 
Photo by Joe Calleri

Photo by Joe Calleri

Photo by Joe Calleri

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