When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, he was the first pope to do so in over 700 years. Screenwriter and novelist Anthony McCarten – whose film credits include The Theory of Everything and Bohemian Rhapsody – explores what might have led the man to make this decision and select his successor.
The play presents Joseph Ratzinger (Anton Lesser) as a mild-mannered, music-loving Bavarian and a reserved traditionalist, whose introverted manner – the closest he ever got to romance was licking salt off a girl’s pretzel in the playground – is often interpreted as coldness. Labelled “God’s rottweiller” and the “Panzer Pope” because of his conservatism and Hitler Youth background, he had already been hoping to resign, when he was made pope at 78 – “who gets a new job at 78?” – and now he fears that he is no longer up to the job.
Though the Argentine Cardinal Bergoglio (Nicholas Woodeson) is also contemplating retirement, there the similarities end. A former bouncer at a tango club, the future Pope Francis is warm, compassionate and fallible with a commitment to helping the poor. He eschews the more ostentatious trappings of his office – he’s worn the same pair of black shoes for 20 years, while Pope Benedict prefers crimson papal slippers.
McCarten succeeds in stripping these two men of their ecclesiastical robes and humanising them. He does this via two lengthy scenes in which both men outline the reasons behind their wishes to retire to loyal nuns, Sister Brigitta (Lynsey Beauchamp) and Sister Sophia (Faith Alabi). Both Beauchamp and Alabi do an excellent job of delivering a huge amount of contextual information, about Argentina’s Dirty War and the country’s many ‘disappeared’, plus the oft-repeated fact that the Catholic Church encompasses some 1.2 billion souls. These Sisters of Exposition help set the scene for the two men’s eventual meeting in Rome.
Woodeson and Lesser are highly watchable in their respective roles. Lesser’s Pope Benedict is suitably buttoned-up, rigid and inward, if perhaps a little too robust, sympathetic and decidedly un-rottweiler-like – he even makes a joke, albeit a German one – while Woodeson’s Bergoglio is genial and gruff, a papa bear type with an earthy laugh.
McCarten is good at clearing through the incense fug to show the internal workings of the Church and he resists passing judgement on either man – or the institution. The play concludes with a fascinating passing-of-the-baton scene in the Sistine Chapel in which they debate their feelings of guilt and complicity regarding the inaction of the Church on child abuse and Bergoglio’s failure to do more to protect his people from the military junta.
Capably directed by James Dacre, the play is never less than engaging, but it’s also a fairly stiff and static production, a quality enhanced by Jonathan Fensom’s chilly set, framed by Roman stone.
McCarten’s script is also the source for an upcoming Netflix film – starring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins – it never quite escapes the sense it might function better on screen.