The Last Confession, Chichester Festival Theatre, West Sussex

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The debutant playwright Roger Crane is a New York lawyer, and his work shows a lawyer’s intellectual acuity and eye for forensic detail. At various moments it approaches the best of several different television or movie genres. There are precise, piercing scenes of power politicking in a rarefied corporate atmosphere, cf. many recent law series. There is a process of detection following a suspect death, cf. police “procedurals”. There is a tribunal scene that, in spite of its informality, is prime courtroom drama. But somehow it’s different when the main characters – all of them male – wear red frocks and are guarded by what looks like a gigantic mint humbug. For they are Roman Catholic cardinals, the humbug is a Swiss Guard, and the principal events in question are the election, brief papacy and death after 33 days in office of Pope John Paul I in 1978.

Ecclesiastical trappings are scarcely more absurd than any other uniform, but when such established genre conventions are played out in unaccustomed costume like this, a faint air of bizarre parody gathers about the proceedings. It is not helped by occasional moments that are wildly overplayed in David Jones’s production, such as when David Suchet’s Vatican kingmaker Cardinal Benelli appends to a request to pray for the departed Pope, “and pray for the Church!” Cue some of the most portentous basso profundo chords that Dominic Muldowney has ever scored. Suchet is of course a masterly, authoritative actor, but sometimes his performance makes up in authority what the script lacks, and now and again you can see the gap.

His Benelli opposes the dodgy doings of the Vatican Bank (see Calvi, Roberto), trying first to check matters through his favoured papal candidate Albino Luciani (Richard O’Callaghan superbly cast, in pure Shoes of the Fisherman mode) then attempting to get to the bottom of Luciani’s sudden death and finally bidding for the papacy for himself. Lines chime out regularly beginning, “It’s all about . . . ” [power/faith/etc] or “The Church’s business is . . . ” [God/man/ religion/souls/etc]. It is an intelligent play about ethics at the interstices of the temporal and spiritual worlds, and about a moment in history (evidently thoroughly researched by Crane) that still requires explanation. It’s just a pity about the red frocks.
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