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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Theatre Royal, Haymarket

By Michael Coveney

  David Suchet

A stage full of Cardinals discussing the papal succession and the Vatican finances seems as unlikely a recipe for a murder mystery as you could invent. Yet Roger Crane's first play - the author is a 61 year-old New York lawyer - grips and intrigues its audience even if the dialogue is as poor and patchy as a gypsy's overcoat.

Much of the force of David Jones's production stems from David Suchet as Cardinal Benelli, who starts the play by confessing a crime and dominates the proceedings with his fixed, hooded glare and imposing physical presence, his pleasant corpulence wrapped up in the red robes of office.

This Cardinal's cardinal sin is one of political ambition, as he manoeuvres an innocent radical into the Vatican hot seat in order to upset the conservative Curia and further his own career.

The play is set in 1978. Pope Paul VI is dying and the vultures gathering around the sale of the Catholic Bank of Venice to the financier Roberto Calvi (who was later found hanging from a London bridge). Benelli installs the reforming Cardinal Luciani as Pope John Paul I. Just as he starts shaking up the Vatican and threatening to undermine its financial dealings ("This is a house of God, not a house of Rothschilds"), John Paul suddenly dies. And maybe not from natural causes.

John Paul ruled for just thirty-three days (well, Jesus died after just thirty-three years) and the play's scenes of cross-questioning and self-revelation take on the quality (if that's the right word) of an Agatha Christie thriller. The resolution is not at all conclusive, however the biggest surprise is the identity of the confessor priest who is hearing Benelli's version of the events.

Suchet was last on the London stage two years ago when he gave a truly great performance in Terence Rattigan's Man and Boy. Since then, the actor best known for his finical, slyly intoned Hercule Poirot on television, has scored further small screen success as the monstrous entrepreneur Robert Maxwell. His cardinal is more restrained, less flashy, but no less brilliant in its exactness of articulation, physical grace and noble, flawed spirituality.

Suchet worked many years ago at the RSC with director Jones, who has assembled a stage full of familiar RSC and repertory theatre faces: Bernard Lloyd as a conniving secretary of state, Clifford Rose as the fading Pope Paul VI, John Franklyn-Robbins as the octogenarian anti-birth control cardinal, Maroussia Frank(widow of the late Ian Richardson) as the new pope's housekeeper and Charles Kay as the slippery, obstructive Cardinal Felici.

Behind the fate of the new pope looms the legacy of Pope John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council and its new mood of ecumenism. Most of the cardinals are against this. Richard O' Callaghan - a really marvellous, spring-heeled and engaging actor whom we see too rarely - gives the new pope a messianic, natural zeal despite having to exclaim "I am what I am!" (without Jerry Herman's music to back him up, let alone a dance routine). So he has to be dealt with, and the conspiracy theories pile up.

William Dudley has designed a series of huge confessional grills and religious frescoes that are moved around less easily than on the open stage at Chichester. With Suchet in command, though, this could prove a surprise old-fashioned hit.


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