Post-mortem on the year of three popes

by
10 May 2007

John Paul I was Pope for 33 days. A play about him rings true, says Simon Sarmiento

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THE LAST CONFESSION, Roger Crane’s new play about Pope John Paul I, has been a long time in the making. Mr Crane has a day job as an attorney in New York City, specialising in commercial law. But he always wanted to be a playwright, and has worked on this script for nearly a decade.

William Dudley’s stage design at the Chichester Festival Theatre evokes elegant Vatican interiors, in a style reminiscent of the recent National Theatre production of Galileo. Indeed, both plays explore the way power politics, corruption, and the need to lie to the public can overtake any influential institution, ecclesiastical or secular. Chichester has the edge, though, in accuracy of costume design for cardinals.

The play deals with the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I in 1978, after only 33 days in office. It is based on history that has been told before, notably in books by David Yallop and John Cornwell. Crane’s play is written from an original perspective: that of Giovanni Cardinal Bennelli, played convincingly by David Suchet. Bennelli was a senior Vatican official under Paul VI, who became a Cardinal and Archbishop of Florence in 1977.

An unsuccessful candidate in the first papal conclave of 1978, he supported the virtually unknown Albino Luciani, Archbishop of Venice, who became Pope John Paul I. After the latter’s death, Bennelli was again a leading but unsuccessful candidate. He died in 1982.

In the play, the new liberal pope, played by Richard O’Callaghan, is despised by senior curial officials, not least for insisting on a reconsideration of Pope Paul’s 1968 encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae. Then he dies unexpectedly, before his plans to return three of the officials to their home countries can be fulfilled. Subsequent confusion about the time and manner of his death and the failure to conduct any autopsy leave the door wide open for speculation about what really happened.

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Cardinals Villot, Felici, Ottaviani, Baggio, Suenens, Gantin, and Lorscheider are each played by actors who look remarkably similar to the real-life originals. I particularly enjoyed John Franklyn-Robbins’s jovial portrayal of the very elderly Alfredo Ottaviani. Stuart Milligan wonderfully captures the bullying arrogance of Paul Marcinkus, the American financier bishop. The only female in the play is Sister Vincenza (Maroussia Frank), who revolutionises life in the papal apartments by going out to buy the new Pope a decent coffee-maker.

This hugely enjoyable production, directed by David Jones, neatly sidesteps the clichés of Vatican intrigue, and its dialogue even sounds as if it might come from the mouths of cardinals. It is based on verifiable facts as much as possible — there is no Dan Brown element here.

Most of the characters in this play are now dead, but the Irishman John Magee, played here by Roger May, was private secretary to both Paul VI and John Paul I, and still holds office as Bishop of Cloyne. Unlike me, he won’t, I think, find this version of events to his taste.

The Last Confession is at at Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester, until 19 May. Box office 01243 781312 (www.cft.org.uk). From 28 May, it tours to Plymouth, then Bath, Malvern, and Milton Keynes.

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