THE TWO POPES at the Royal and Derngate Theatre
“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: