“James Dacre’s direction is fluid and natural in a setting that is ambient and fitting”
In 2013, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the Catholic world by resigning his position as head of the church; the first Pope to give up his position for seven hundred years. Elected in his place, was the current Pope Francis, a man with different opinions in almost every direction to his predecessor. Playwright Anthony McCarten sets the story just before Benedict’s shocking announcement, just as both priests are considering their futures. The play was first performed at this theatre in 2019 and returns to the same stage following its successful Oscar-nominated film adaptation.
The theatre is filled with the smell of incense and the sound of plainsong (Music composed by Anne Dudley). At the far end of a deep stage (Designer Jonathan Fensom) is a memorial for the deceased Pope John Paul II. A plume of white smoke arises, and Benedict (Anton Lesser) dressed in papal attire prepares to meet the throngs amassed in St Peter’s Square.
Skip forward eight years, and a sprightly Benedict – dressed in civilian clothes, white hair flowing – arrives home. Rain is pouring down and he makes jokes about being Noah. He looks forward to eating German noodle soup prepared by lifelong assistant Sister Brigitta (Lynsey Beauchamp) and watching the latest episode of a German TV adventure series. This is the Pope on his day off and Lesser makes the most of this role, clearly enjoying being a Pope unrestricted by the constraints of his position. Until, that is, Benedict confides to the Sister about his thoughts of giving up on being Pope.
In the next scene, a mirror of the one before, we meet Cardinal Bergoglio (Nicholas Woodeson) who talks of retirement to Sister Sophia (Leaphia Darko) who tries to persuade him not to give up on doing good for the people of Argentina. The move to Buenos Aires is shown with a change to the projection onto the three arches that frame the stage (Video and Projection Designer Duncan McLean). Some parts of the conversation are marred by discrepancies in South American accent, but Woodeson is clearly comfortable in the shoes of this amiable priest. Making the decision to retire, the Cardinal agrees to visit the Vatican to plead his case with the Pope.
Three scenes follow where the two men meet, often seated at a distance to each other across the stage to highlight the divide between them. Conversely, one scene sees them squeezed onto a small garden bench. They argue their differences despite their close proximity and the discomfort they feel is tangible. As they come to a mutual understanding, both priests hear the confession of the other under the painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In a rather understated manner, we hear the tragic back stories that haunt both men: Bergoglio was unable to protect his priests from torture by the Argentinian Junta; Benedict was unable to prevent serial assaults by a priest under his tutelage. There are important issues here that could be aired further but this play is about the two priests as people and not about the wider issues of the Catholic Church.
The play ends with a mirror of the start and white plumes signal the start of the papacy of Pope Francis.
Despite the unlikely subject matter, there is much to be enjoyed in McCarten’s writing and even some laugh-out-loud moments. James Dacre’s direction is fluid and natural in a setting that is ambient and fitting. The performances of both leads are exceptional and Anton Lesser gives a masterclass in character acting as the pained Pope Benedict.
“Brooks practically steals the show with her soul-stirring “No Woman, No Cry”.
There’s a backline of oversized speakers, on which the cast and musicians sway to the beat while Bob Marley bounces downstage to take the microphone. Over the vamping, pulsating music, Marley introduces the cast members, inviting applause for each name check. We are definitely in gig territory here – not one of the oldest, most elaborate West End theatres. A sensation reinforced by the stripped back narrative that follows. The music is key. But like with Marley himself, it serves the purpose of getting the message across in ways that mere words cannot achieve.
David Albury bears a striking resemblance, physically and vocally. He is the alternate Bob Marley, but the role seems to have been written for him alone as he takes us on the journey of one of the most popular, yet most misunderstood, musicians in modern culture. Marley has achieved immortality, but some argue that his image is commercialised and diluted. “Get Up Stand Up!” gives us a glimpse of the real deal. The ghetto kid who believed in freedom. And fought for it. The convert to Rastafari. The kid sent away by his mother to Kingston for a better life. The ambassador of love, loss and redemption. The victim of an assassination attempt who headlined the ‘One Love’ Peace Concert in 1978, receiving the United Nations Peace Medal of the Third World. The cancer victim. But we also catch sight of the misogyny, the carelessness and self-absorption that affected those closest to him – namely his wife, Rita (Gabrielle Brooks), and long-term girlfriend, Cindy Breakspeare (Shanay Holmes).
The most revealing and poignant moments of the evening are provided by Brooks and Holmes. Hearing Marley’s words resonate from these two formidable women’s voices adds layers of compassion, tenderness, and bitterness. Brooks practically steals the show with her soul-stirring “No Woman, No Cry”.
Marley’s somewhat questionable attitude towards women is certainly thrown into the spotlight, and while writer Lee Hall tries to mitigate by highlighting Marley’s ‘marriage to the band’, we never really get a sense of what makes him tick. As mentioned, we do only get the broad outlines. The dialogue between the numbers does tend to assume we know so much already. But with such a wealth of material that’s probably a necessity, and it does spur us on to do our own homework. In the meantime, we can relish in the sheer energy of Clint Dyer’s production. It is a jukebox musical that never feels like one. Marley’s songs are the soundtrack to his life, so obviously make the perfect soundtrack to this sweeping panoramic vision of a visionary artist. Dyer races through the story, but occasionally stops the track to zoom in and focus on particular moments. Marley watches his younger self (brilliantly played by Maxwell Cole) leave the family home, while later on the young Marley stands by to witness his older self receive his cancer diagnosis.
These moments of unconventionality never detract from the ‘concert’ feel of the show. And, after all, it is the songs that tell the story. Shelley Maxwell’s choreography is stunning but, with an eye on a West End audience, occasionally mismatched to the material. But the roots are still there, just as Marley stayed true to his own roots even when Chris Blackwell of Island Records (Henry Faber) sensed a need to reach out to the predominantly white, British audience in the 1970s.
The set list is comprehensive, including lesser known, more lyrically challenging numbers along with the signature tunes we know and love. As the evening slows down to a plaintively acoustic “Redemption Song” we see the intoxicating mix of the gentle and the explosive that coexisted within Marley’s spirit. And his spirit is in full attendance throughout the night. The crowd can’t fail to follow the command of “Get Up Stand Up” during the rousing encore.