Tag Archives: Jonathan Fensom

The Two Popes

The Two Popes


Royal and Derngate Theatre

THE TWO POPES at the Royal and Derngate Theatre



The Two Popes

“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.



Reviewed on 11th October 2022

by Phillip Money

Photography by Manuel Harlan



Previously reviewed at this venue:

Animal Farm | ★★★★ | May 2021
Gin Craze | ★★★★ | July 2021
Blue / Orange | ★★★★ | November 2021
The Wellspring | ★★★ | March 2022
Playtime | ★★★★ | September 2022



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Orpheus Descending

Menier Chocolate Factory

Orpheus Descending

Orpheus Descending

Menier Chocolate Factory

Reviewed – 16th May 2019



“Every moment between them is overflowing with nuance and tension, with a beautiful unpredictability as to how their relationship will develop”


The stage directions in the plays of the likes of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller are notorious for their length and level of detail – to actors, directors, and designers they can often feel like micromanagement of every aspect from the writer. Tamara Harvey’s production of Orpheus Descending defies the demands of the stage directions by instead having Valentine Hanson’s Uncle Pleasant speak some of them aloud. Amongst an unfocused opening, this comes off as a somewhat baffling choice, but key moments transfigure the function of the directions by weaponising them to make a stern point about the cyclical nature of hatred and fear within small-town communities, creating a rich and layered tapestry that delves directly into the human heart.

The titular Orpheus of Orpheus Descending is Valentine Xavier (Seth Numrich), a guitar-wielding, snakeskin-wearing drifter who has ended up in a small Southern town and is looking for work. Conveniently, Lady Torrance (Hattie Morahan) needs an extra hand at her general store since her husband Jabe (Mark Meadows) has fallen ill and although she’s reticent to employ an outsider, her decision to do so takes both her and Valentine on a passionate and ideological odyssey – albeit one threatened by the animosity from the rest of the town towards Valentine. The play grapples with a lot of hefty themes and ideas, chief among which seemed to be an exploration of outcasts and belonging – the clash of the townspeople who immediately dislike any intrusion into their tight-knit community with the free-spirited and open-minded nature of Valentine exposes the prejudices embedded into society and how can they affect even those who thought they were safe. In many ways, it operates as a microcosm for wider society and – sadly – still bears a lot of relevance today.

There are universally excellent performances on display here – even minor roles like Ian Porter’s Sheriff Talbott and Carrie Quinlan’s Nurse Porter carry a depth and gravitas that enrich the texture of their actions and dialogue. Jemima Rooper also does an incredible job as Carol Cutrere, another outcast whose circumstance and attitude serves as a smart counterpoint to Valentine. However, the abundance of praise must go to Numrich and Morahan as the central pair – the dynamic between the two is like a injection of rocket fuel directly into the bloodstream. Every moment between them is overflowing with nuance and tension, with a beautiful unpredictability as to how their relationship will develop; it’s never anything less than a total joy to watch the two interact.

Harvey’s direction and Jonathan Fensom’s minimalist design keeps the focus firmly on the performances, which is probably for the best given that there are so many – there are thirteen actors in the play, which results in an opening that’s quite chaotic and messy. It makes you wish the creative team had been as bold with presenting the most focused version of the play as they had with the stage directions, because once it does hone in on Valentine and Lady, Orpheus Descending is hauntingly seismic.


Reviewed by Tom Francis

Photography by Johan Persson


Orpheus Descending

Menier Chocolate Factory until 6th July


Previously reviewed at this venue:
The Gronholm Method | ★★★★ | May 2018
Fiddler on the Roof | ★★★★★ | December 2018
The Bay At Nice | ★★½ | March 2019


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