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The Last Confession
Directed by Jonathan Church
Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto (seen on May 8 and 9, 2014)

The Last Confession, written by Roger Crane, explores the mystery surrounding the sudden death of Pope John Paul I who was found dead only 33 days after his election in 1978.

Toronto was the first station of an international tour that continues in Los Angeles and Australia. The Royal Alexandra Theatre is a beautiful cozy theatre that opened in 1907. The moment you entered the auditorium, the scent of incense gives the impression that you are in a church.

The play begins with the confession of an ailing Cardinal Benelli (David Suchet) who feels responsible for the premature death of Pope John Paul I. The story unfolds in a series of flashbacks, starting during the papacy of Paul VI. Cardinal Luciani (Richard O’Callaghan) from Venice arrives in Rome and seeks an audience with the Pope in order to talk to him about Bishop Marcinkus’ sale of the Catholic Bank of Venice. However, the Pope wouldn’t meet him, so Luciani turns to his friend Archbishop Benelli for intervention. Benelli promises to talk to Cardinal Villot (Nigel Bennett) and Marcinkus (Stuart Milligan).

Cardinal Villot is the Vatican’s Secretary of State. In the play he is described as a tall thin man, looking every inch the cardinal. When I read that, Nigel’s image came instantly to mind, and he is perfect for that role! He wore an amaranth red-trimmed black cassock with pellegrina and fascia and a pectoral cross. In his first scene it becomes quite clear that this is a man who believes his word is law and who does not tolerate any other opinion than that of the conservative Catholic Church. Aware that Benelli may oppose his views, Villot suggests to Pope Paul VI (Donald Douglas) that Benelli should be removed from Rome. Accordingly, Pope VI sends Benelli to Florence, but appoints him to be Cardinal so that he may have a say in the next conclave when it come to the election of a new Pope who, so Paul VI hopes, will not be controlled by the Curia.

When Pope Paul VI passes away, the cardinals, including Benelli, gather for the conclave. Benelli promotes the election of Luciani, a humble man who does not want a position of such power. Yet Benelli manages to convince enough cardinals to support Luciani. Cardinal Villot is the one reading out the votes and this was very well done. While the stage was dark, Nigel’s voice reverberated from speakers around the auditorium giving you the impression you were in the middle of it all. Very nice.

Luciani accepts the vote and calls himself John Paul I. The Cardinals Villot, Felici (John O’May) and Baggio (Kevin Colson) believe that the new Pope can be easily controlled by the Curia. However they are proven very wrong. Although the papal clothes are far too big for John Paul’s small frame, the Pope carries out his agenda with an inner strength that surprises all. It starts with his wish to change the coronation ceremony. He does not want to be crowned and he wants to enter St. Paul’s Church on foot. His ideas about birth control are very liberal. In his demeanor he reminded me very much of the present Pope Frances, which gave the play an interesting current touch. Cardinal Villot opposes his suggestions instantly, stating that the coronation is a century-old tradition that cannot be altered on a whim. Yet, he has no choice but to comply.

Cardinal Benelli had expected to be appointed Secretary of State in Villot’s stead. But when this does not happen, he leaves Rome. Back to the present, Benelli regrets this choice, feeling that he has abandoned John Paul when he needed him most.

When John Paul wants to push his own ideas, Villot announces that he will bury him in enough paperwork that he won’t have the time for any reforms.

After the intermission, the second act starts in John Paul’s study. He finds out from his secretary that his predecessor Pope Paul VI always received summaries while entire reports pile up on his own desk. After sending Bishop Marcinkus home to Chicago, he informs the Cardinals Baggio, Felici and Villot that he intends to remove them as well. On the next morning, Benelli receives a phone call from Villot that the Pope has been found dead in his bed, only 33 days after his election.

When Benelli arrives in Rome, he learns that no autopsy has been conducted and that there are conflicting reports about the time the body was found and by whom as well as about the position he was found in. It turns out that Villot had removed all personal effects, including the papers the Pope had been working on, which apparently concerned the removal of the Cardinals in power.

Benelli insists on an investigation, but the other cardinals convince him that it might not bear well in the public eye when the conclave is postponed because of rumours that the Pope may have been murdered. Yet it is agreed upon an informal investigation.

When Benelli questions the physician, it turns out that the Pope had been in excellent health showing no risk factors of the heart attack that was presumably the cause of death. Also the way the body was found was not consistent with a heart attack. The next candidate to be interrogated is Cardinal Villot. There’s a tremor in his hand that increases in intensity the more agitated he becomes by Benelli’s questions. During the cross-examination he admits that to save the Church, the Pope had to die. When Benelli confronts him stating that he drove him too hard day and night, Villot suddenly jumps up and bursts out that he killed the Pope. The theatre went utterly silent for several seconds. That was a striking performance!

Benelli wants to question further people, but Felici convinces him to lay off. He says what Benelli really wants is to remove Villot, Marcinkus, Felici and others, and that he can only accomplish that if he becomes the next Pope. However, he would never become Pope if he puts off the conclave to continue the investigation. Benelli sees the point and decides that he wants to become the next Pope.

During the conclave there is a deadlock. Benelli needs only 5 more votes, but none of Felici’s supporters would shift. Finally Benelli gives up and tells his supporters to vote for Woytila, who then becomes the next Pope John Paul II. This was an interesting turn in the play. During the conclave Woytila remained in the shadows. When he is announced to be the next Pope, he steps into the light and it turns out that he is the Confessor (Philip Craig).

Back in the present, Benelli is disappointed that John Paul II did not reopen the investigation. John Paul II claims it was necessary to protect the Church from greater damage. Benelli wants to publish his Confession, but John Paul II asks him not to. When Benelli is alone, he has a final inner conflict, then he lights a match and burns the confession before passing away.

Overall, this is a very complex play, and it helps to have some background knowledge on the topic in order to keep better track of what’s going on and who is who, especially in the beginning. Although the characters in the play really existed, the dialogues are fiction. Yet to this day, there are rumours about foul play surrounding the early demise of Pope John Paul I. The play purposefully leaves it open what really happened, so everybody can draw their own conclusions.

David Suchet was the star of this production. He had already played the role during the first run in England 2007. In North America he is apparently well known for his role as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. However, since that series never aired in Germany, I had never heard of him before. He was very good in the role of the ambitious Benelli.

Richard O’Callaghan’s friendly Pope John Paul I was a wonderful counterpoint to the strict cardinals surrounding him.

Nigel Bennett gave an outstanding performance. His quarrels with Benelli were very powerful, and due to his height it was quite impressive when he towered over Benelli.

Toronto was the nearest venue for me to catch this play. Although it was still 6,000 km, the experience was well worth the flight.
pj1228: Lacroix (Default)
Directed by Jousie Rourke
Live broadcast from the National Theatre, London, UK on January 30, 2014

This week I attended another live broadcast from London. National Theatre's production of Coriolanus was screened in cinemas around the world from the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden.

Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays. In fact, I haven't seen it on the playlist of any of the 7 seasons I've attended in Stratford. I had neither read the play, so getting treated to a 400-year old play for the first time was an exciting experience.

Set in Rome, before it became the well-known Empire, Coriolanus tells the story of Caius Martius, a general in the Roman army. After his victory over the Volscian town of Corioles and its Commander Aufidius, he's awarded for his bravery with the byname Coriolanus. On his return to Rome, his ambitious mother Volumnia urges him to run for consul. He easily receives the support from the Roman Senate, but has a problem with asking the common people for their voices in the traditional humble way. Due to his arrogance and previously uttered hatred of the plebeians, two tribunes undermine his plans and cause a riot against him. Coriolanus flees from Rome and offers his services to Aufidius, intent to take revenge. Together, they lead the assault against Rome. During the siege, his former friends Menenius and Cominius fail to persuade Coriolanus to halt his crusade for vengeance. His mother Volumnia finally succeeds in dissuading him from destroying Rome and concluding a peace treaty instead between the Volscians and Rome. When Aufidius hears about this, he calls Coriolanus a traitor and kills him for his betrayal.

Coriolanus was played by Tom Hiddleston. I didn't know him, but apparently he is well known for his role as Loki in the Thor movies, which I haven't seen. He was in very good shape, as was seen particularly in the well choreographed fight scenes with Aufidius. In a chilling sequence in the end he is pulled up with his feet on a chain which causes him dangling upside down from the ceiling while his throat is being slashed.

Menenius was played by Mark Gatiss. I knew him from BBC's Sherlock where he plays Mycroft whom I like very much. I had no idea that he was in the play, so this was a lovely surprise.

Other notable appearances were Deborah Findlay as Volumnia, Peter de Jersey as Cominius, Helen Schlesinger as Sicinia and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Coriolanus' wife Virgilia.
pj1228: Lacroix (Default)
It's been a while since my last post. So it's about time that I share my impressions on this year's season in Stratford, Ontario. I've seen 4 plays in total: The Thrill, The Three Musketeers, Mary Stuart and Measure for Measure. Let's start with a review of The Thrill which I had the pleasure of seeing twice. When someone in the B&B I stayed in heard that I was going to see it twice, he asked if I enjoy stomping my foot with a pole. Well, all I can say is, although it was not a light topic, it was well worth seeing it twice. Of course, the wonderful cast contributed a lot to that effect.

"The Thrill" is a new play written by Judith Thompson. It was commissioned by the Stratford Festival and had its world premiere at the Studio Theatre during the 2013 season. The cast included Lucy Peacock as Elora, Nigel Bennett as Julian, Patricia Collins as Hanna and Robert Persichini as Frances. They were all brilliant!

Set in Charleston, "The Thrill" focuses on Elora, played by Lucy Peacock, who is confined to a wheelchair since her birth because she is suffering from a degenerative muscle disease. However, this handicap doesn't stop her from enjoying life to the fullest within her limitations. Elora has become a successful lawyer. Her best friend and confidant is Frances, her gay caregiver, played by Robert Persichini.

When Elora reads about the upcoming visit of activist Julian, she becomes very upset. In her view he is the impersonated devil because he advocates giving parents a choice to decide the fate of their children when they are born with an incurable disease. He is on a tour promoting his book "Wheelbarrow" in which he describes the fate of his sister who died in childhood after years of suffering from a painful disease. Elora regards him as a threat to her existence because she wouldn't be alive had her parents acted according to Julian's view. She plans to interrupt Julian's book-reading at the university with a protest of her own.

In the next scene we learn that Julian, played by Nigel Bennett, is not the devil as he was described by Elora. He is caring deeply for his mother Hanna, played by Patricia Collins, who is suffering from dementia.

In the lecture hall, when Julian is talking about his sister and explains his views, Elora runs him over with her wheelchair. In the next scene he visits her at home bringing a cake as a gift. Much to her surprise he apologizes and asks her to join him in a panel discussion. She refuses at first but when Frances asks her which scarf she intends to wear it's clear that she would accept the challenge.

During the debate Julian and Elora both point out their views. Later they meet in a restaurant. She is fashionably late. She convinces him to join her in her campaign to get "her" people out of nursing homes which she calls "gulag" and enable them to receive appropriate homecare. He is clearly struck by her beauty and her spirit and she by his charisma. He admires her eyes and her hair and asks for permission to kiss her which she allows. Passions rise and his hand finds his way under her skirt. The following passionate scene was very effective. The lights went down and only their silhouettes were visible in front of a screen. Her accelerated breathing implied what was going on. Then it went completely dark and it was intermission.

After the intermission 6 months had passed. Julian and Elora have stayed in contact via skype while he went on a world tour to promote his book. However, Elora's state has deteriorated during this time and she's now on a feeding tube. Hanna has also taken a turn to the worse, leaving Julian no choice but to send her to a nursing home in order to prevent her from harming herself at home. Elora is angry at him because he made hardly any progress with their mutual project and her time is running out. She asks sarcastically if anyone bought his book in Sansibar. She feels used by him as if he had merely studied her to gain material for a new book, but Frances assures her that Julian's feelings for her are honest.

Meanwhile Hanna has passed away. She comes on stage with a walking frame and talks in a chilling monologue about her ordinary life.

When Julian visits Elora again she asks him to kiss her deeply until she suffocates. He refuses at first but she begs him to do for her what he couldn't do for his sister. Finally he gives in and, kneeling in front of her, initiates the "kiss of death". After a while she begins to struggle, but he continues. After what seems a gripping eternity, he lets go, saying he can't do it. Elora recovers and thanks him for not making her the exception. He wants to stay with her, but she refuses, telling him that Frances will stay with her until the end and see her out. In the final scene she's with Frances alone on the stage. Music is heard through the window. For a while she moves with her wheelchair in tune to the sounds. Then she asks Frances to pour a little bit of wine into her feeding tube.

"The Thrill" is certainly one of those plays that stay with you long after the performance is over. It touches topics which everyone is reluctant to talk about. What I liked in particular about the play is the balance of conflicting emotions. While there was a lot of drama the dialogues were interlaced with lots of humour, prompting the audience to laugh which felt like a relief from all the pent up emotions.

And the cast was exceptional. Lucy Peacock gave a stunning portrayal of a strong-willed woman confined to a wheelchair. The joy for life she exudes in the first scene is clearly palpable. Her labouring breathing after an asthma attack was as believable as the posture of her limbs that wouldn't always respond the way she wished. Nigel Bennett gave a very emotional performance as Julian. He was the loving, caring and patient son in the scenes with his mother. He conveyed despair when he talked about the fate of his sister, and he was utterly charming in the scenes with Elora. Since his character was of Irish origin, he used an Irish accent throughout the play. I certainly wish he would get more major roles in Stratford.


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