Los Angeles, CA—It is said that ‘power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Who would have thunk that inside the Catholic Church/Vatican that particular saying would show itself many times over and especially in Roger Crane’s powerfully spellbinding play “The Last Confession” staring David Suchet (of Inspector Poirot fame)? It is now playing at The Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through July 6th. It will truly give you pause to think.
“The Last Confession is a production of The Chichester Festival Theatre that started as part of a world tour in Toronto. It will head down under to Perth and other place of interest at the close of this run. It would behoove anyone loving theatre to see it.
Albino Luciani aka Pope John Paul I reigned supreme head of the Catholic Church for 33 days, the shortest in Papal History. In 1978, without any fore warnings or symptoms of illness, he died of a heart attack at age 65.
Some believe that he really pissed off the high holy rollers serving under him because he was a Pope intent on making changes happen. Some believe that they got away with murder. Bishops and Cardinals of long-standing and underhanded shenanigans had much to lose had he lived much longer. His death came as a surprise to those who knew the Pope. Well, the fact is, he did provoke his enemies and he didn’t live long enough to reap the results of his changes.
The mystery of his death and the assumption that he was murdered, an idea floating around ‘till this day and one that might never be proven is a sad commentary on the cloistered mentality that pervades inside the Vatican. Just calculate how long it finally took it to expel a handful of pedophiles.
Luciani’s elevation to Pope and the following 33 days of his unorthodox reign, pretty much cover Crane’s provocative look into the politics of the Church and most likely the inspiration for his play, “The Last Confession”. It’s a mystery becoming Agatha Christie’s Inspector Poirot. Or better yet, a high stakes chess game.
At the center of this conundrum is Cardinal Giovanni Benelli (David Suchet) who was actually the first choice of the papal conclave following the death of Paul VI, to be Pope. At that time he was Archbishop serving in the number two position as the Secretary of State in the Vatican, a position of great influence and a position as close to the Pope’s ear as one can get.
He was powerful, persuasive and well versed in the in’s and out’s of church politics, and especially of knowing all the tricks of the trade. The one thing he couldn’t do was orchestrate, successfully, a way to rid the Vatican of conservative old world thinkers and troublemakers. At the top of the ‘to let go list’ was Cardinal Jean Villot, Sec. of State of the Vatican (Nigel Bennett) whom, we will later learn, undermined everything John Paul I tried to do by forging ahead and ignoring this Pope’s wishes. Villot chose to remain loyal to the same airtight doctrines of his predecessor, the conservative Paul VI.
To that end Benelli recommended the little known country priest Luciani (Richard O’Callaghan), who was more of a people’s pope than a political player. He was a shy, humble and pleasant man whose concern for the poor of his parish was greater than any wealth or position he might gain.
He would advocate the Church be more lenient and adopt more liberal reforms on abortion, birth control and divorce by rewriting and reversing Pope Paul VI papal doctrines. (Pope Francis faces the same scrutiny.) O’Callaghan is so interesting to watch, naturally playing his hand out slowly and deliberately by calling out and attempting to relocate all of his opponents, but alas, he never lived to see it. His is a masterful performance.
At the play opens, a sick and fragile Benelli is ready to give his last written confession to the Confessor (Philip Craig). Benelli is troubled by the guilt he feels over his involvement in the selection of Luciani as Pope. He blames himself for not being in the Vatican when the Pope needed his support most. Earlier on his ego got in the way of his decision not to be by the Pope’s side, ergo he questions his own faith. Now he wants absolution.
He also wants his written confession to be published. The Confessor won’t hear of it. He wants to discuss Luciani but gets cut of at the pass. They haggle back and fourth about a written confession as opposed to an oral confession. Soon the action and the drama unfold in flashbacks to the five years leading up to and preceding his ‘confession’. Suchet acts as both narrator and major player. His performance is bravura one. So involved in his character, that at curtain he was still emotionally wrought.
In front of our eyes the stage fills with priests, cardinals, and Monsignor Magee (David Ferry) Secretary to Paul VI and the most liberal of the group, all going about their business when then Archbishop Bellini, who is now Cardinal of Florence, brings up the name Luciani as the next Pope.
From there the story weaves through church intrigue, church business, power plays and nasty retribution, the death of Pope Paul VI and the ordination of Pope John Paul I. Dirty tricks and cunning business men rule with uninterrupted reprimand while the church tends to business as usual.
Dueling personalities take center stage and at one point Suchet’s Benelli and Bennett’s Cardinal Villot argue back fourth about loyalty and where Villot stands in his position as Secretary of State. It is a stunning moment as the two powerhouses; both as actors and as major players in this highly charged exchange keep us totally engaged in their give and take.
The behind the scenes infighting dealing with personalities on opposite ends of the spectrum creates a tension that remains until the end. Whether it’s a discovery about money, in particular Bishop Marchinkus (Stuart Milligan is excellent as the seedy and treacherous money man), or a Papal decision of a different stripe, or just the way the Pope is treated by his ‘enemies’ is exquisite. The international cast, under the deft direction of Jonathan Church and no less than twenty performers, keeps the energy alive, highly electric and focused at all times.
I’m taking costume designer Fotini Dimou’s word for it that his colorful looking costume designs are representative of the different hierarchy is accurate. That said the entire cast, including those moving sets around, looked like the real McCoy to one unfamiliar with such pomp. Dominic Muldowney’s musical compositions sounded to my ear, authentic. They did reverberate throughout the theatre.
Oft times William Dudley’s industrial looking moveable set designs of towering wrought iron grates felt more like a prison atmosphere, most likely his intention of being shut off from the outside world and for the most part it had that feeling.
Peter Numford’s dim lighting design created the darkness that is becoming the atmosphere for a good mystery. In the final scene, he captures the dying Bellini slumped in an easy chair “illuminated only by his burning confession. It’s stunning.
Bellini died in 1982 of what was announced as a heart attack. In 1984 the Vatican paid out 250 million dollars to settle claims against it arising from the collapse of Bank Ambrosiano, the bank Bishop Marchinks practically broke because of his greed (and is acted out in Crane’s retelling). He was arrested but no action was ever taken. He continued his position as head of the Vatican Bank.
Politics and Religion always make fascinating bedfellows. These will will blow your mind.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through July 6th
Organization: Center Theatre Group
Production Type: Drama
Where: 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown L.A. at the Music Center
Ticket Prices: $20.00-$125.00
Venue: Ahmanson Theatre