Review: The Two Popes is a mesmerising masterpiece with a human touch on Northampton stage
“Why do priests wear a white collar? Because they are up to their neck in it,” jokes one character in Anthony McCarten’s celebrated play The Two Popes.
The story is about two men very much up to their necks in the responsibilities brought by the highest office in the Roman Catholic church.
Throughout history, the position of the Pope has arguably been one held at arm’s length from human foibles. A lot is expected of the man in this role.
The Two Popes, which is inspired by the real life story of Pope Benedict XVI who broke a 700-year-old tradition by resigning, focuses on the turmoil of this decision and dwells on the challenges faced by the man who was to replace him – Cardinal Bergoglio.
The play is a layered and complex masterpiece also dealing with the wider troubles of a church faced by issues such as dwindling clergy and congregation numbers, as well as abuse scandals.
The subject and themes are incredibly powerful due to great writing as well as the amazing acting skills of Anton Lesser as Benedict and Nicholas Woodeson as the Cardinal. Both perfectly executed text-heavy dialogue with unwavering conviction and charisma, delivering mesmerising performances.
There is no question that the play deals with heavy subjects, but it does so through the subtle portrayal of extremely human characters who declare themselves sinners but whose penitence and self-awareness make them revered by others. This human view of two holy men also means there are regular light moments, notably Benedict’s love of TV dramas, the Cardinal’s digs at Benedict’s classical album recording and the Cardinal’s football fanaticism.
Using projected images to flick between the beautiful settings of The Vatican and Argentina, the audience is transported to those backdrops most important to the Pope and his successor - until conclusions are reached under the magnificent frescos of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
Wonderfully directed by the Royal & Derngate’s artistic director James Dacre, The Two Popes is an insightful play which shines a spotlight on two men who are similar in aspirations but different in theological beliefs.
The Two Popes runs until Saturday October 15. Visit royalandderngate.co.uk to book.