Performing Arts
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David Mirvish Presents "The Last Confession" - A Chichester Festival Theatre Production

The Last Confession

The Last Confession - Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre
Royal Alexandra Theatre

It contains typical Agatha Christie murder mystery components - intrigue, suspense, an austere, formidable setting and a clever, undeterred sleuth, the very man who played her Belgian super sleuth, David Suchet! As such, this is a do-not-miss production.

Roger Crane is a lawyer, and The Last Confession is his first play, a "who-done-it" set in the Vatican and based upon a mix of historical fact and conjecture, the prime suspects, a cadre of power-hungry, conservative Cardinals whose authority and stature are suddenly tested by a seemingly innocuous Cardinal who as Pope, unexpectedly turns out to be an altruistic reformer. In the end, it's up to the audience (with Suchet's help) to sort out the "facts."

David Suchet - Photo by John Haines Richard O'Callaghan plays the deceptively simple Cardinal Albino Luciani, later John Paul I, thanks to the political mechanics of Cardinal Benelli, played by David Suchet, who uses Hercule Poirot's detective skills and " little gray cells" to ferret out the guilty who likely poisoned the Pope and who certainly destroyed all of the evidence - as well as quickly embalming the dead man before an autopsy might be conducted.

O'Callaghan shines as a Pope who cares more for people than politics, loves to walk amongst the common types such as his gardener and as one of the Cardinals ironically observes, while the diminutive Pope is swallowed by his gargantuan robes: "They made the garments in every size except his. No one had his measure."

Following a first act that drags a tad, Suchet sparkles as Benelli in Act II when literally all hell breaks loose, but his personal struggle with faith and the Vatican bureaucracy takes a conveniently glib end. He excels in his battles with the likes of Nigel Bennett as Cardinal Villot (my favourite of the heavies.), Kevin Colson as Cardinal Baggio who refuses John Paul's demand that he quit his post, Peter Haring, the Dick Cheney embodiment of Cardinal Suenens and Stuart Milligan, the arrogant Chicago mobster, Bishop Marcinkus, the Vatican's banker whose shady deals reflect well with those of Al Capone.

The Royal Alexandra Theatre's program for The Last Confession begins with an essay on: " Vatican Politics" by Roger Crane, playwright of The Last Confession, and Crane sets up his play historically as follows:
Richard O'Callaghan, John Paul I "In 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council. His objective was to open the windows of the Church to the world. The Council began an overhaul of the Church's laws and adopted an approach of reconciliation and collaboration towards the other faiths of the world.

John died in 1963 before the Council's work was completed. His successor was Paul VI. In the 15 years during Paul's reign, the reactionary element of the Church, primarily located within the Vatican's administrative body known as the Curia, sought to undo all that had been accomplished by the Second Vatican Council and to restore the concept of an autocratic and aloof church that had existed prior to John XXIII.

Paul was elected by the liberal faction of the Church to implement the reforms of the Vatican Council. However, he turned out to be incapable of decisive action and instead equivocated between the positions of both sides. In fact, John XXIII had referred to Paul when he was a Cardinal as his "Hamlet Cardinal."

In the last year of Paul's reign, the struggle intensified. Paul was nearly 80 years old and in poor health. The reactionary forces within the Church began manoeuvring in an effort to elect a conservative Pope who would do away with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The liberals, on the other hand, were mostly outside Rome and only loosely organized.

At the same time, the Church was in a state of economic crisis. The reforms of the Vatican Council had significantly increased the costs of administering the Church. Michele Sindona, a man with Mafia connections, had been hired by Paul to act as the Church's financial consultant. By the last year of Paul's reign, Sindona was lodged in an American prison. His replacement as consultant to the Vatican was an Italian financier called Roberto Calvi, a man with an equally murky financial past.

Paul died in 1978. The Cardinals elected a compromise candidate - Albino Luciani, a Cardinal from Venice who chose the name Pope John Paul I. In the 33 days of his reign, he turned out to be far more liberal than the reactionaries ever suspected. The night before he died, he had decided to remove the most senior of the reactionaries from power as well as Bishop Marcinkus who headed the scandal-ridden Vatican Bank. Because he died the next day, his reforms were never implemented.

The Vatican press release about the cause of his death was proved to be, in large part, false. No official investigation was ever conducted and no autopsy was performed. Questions were raised in the press as to whether John Paul had been murdered and a battle developed among the Cardinals over the election of the next Pope.

The play mirrors the confession of Cardinal Benelli, the man who had engineered the election of Pope John Paul I in 1978. The confession recounts the events that occurred before, during and immediately after the Pope's 33-day reign, and Benelli's ambition to become Pope himself."

The play casts a hard look at the Catholic Church and the titanic struggle inside by powerful Cardinals to keep its 800 million souls mired in the Middle Ages while others, like feisty revolutionary priests in South America, try to make it reflect the modern era. John Paul runs up against a stubborn Curia that ignores his policies and a Vatican press that misrepresents his views.

William Dudley's design, employing massive, black iron fencing as cage like screens that rotate and Peter Mumford's murky, misty lighting, transform the Vatican into a baroque prison, appropriate given the dark souls parading in red robes who lurk about at its gates - such as David Ferry who convincingly portrays a Monsignor Magee who conveniently skips town after the death and seems complicit in some dark deed when called back and interrogated by Suchet in a futile attempt at an investigation, hurried along by Bernard Lloyd as brusque Cardinal Ottaviani.

Sheila Ferris as Sister Vincenza, the lone woman in the play (this is the Vatican) and Sam Parks as Father Lorenzi are both likeable as John Paul's two admirers as they try to assist him dutifully throughout the day.

Jonathan Church, the Director, enjoys a particularly strong cast, and of course, Suchet is his star, and although this production will inevitably do well on tour throughout the world, it, like the Church that it portrays, has much more potential than explored.

An interesting note is that Benelli was five votes short of succeeding John Paul I as Pontiff but his conservative opponents would not give way; thus, he again became King maker moving his votes to the compromise candidate, Cardinal Wojtyla.

Even as the current Pope Francis has quickly canonized both John Paul II and John XXIII, Crane's play provokes uneasy questions. Why did the Polish Pope, John Paul II, turn his back on many of his predecessor's reform plans? Perhaps the superior futuristic figure was actually John Paul I. And remember God's Banker, Roberto Calvi, who was discovered hanging beneath Blackfriars Bridge? What was his connection with the Mafia and the P2 Freemasons? Given the financial shenanigans exposed in the play along with the devious American Marcinkus, was the Church of Rome led by a Godfather rather than a Pope?

Nonetheless, despite the above, the convenient aspect concerning Catholic theological and moral equivocation is that it can be neatly and quickly corrected with one last confession! Amen, I suppose, and don't forget to say a few Hail Mary's!

The Last Confession plays until June 1 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W., Running Time: 2 hrs 30 min includes intermission, or 416-872-1212

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