Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa – through my most grievous fault is an accusation Roman Catholic believers make against themselves when they have sinned.
The progressive Cardinal Benelli finds himself in this position when writing his own confession in a power broking performance of Roger Crane’s The Last Confession now on at The Comedy Theatre, Melbourne.
There are some laugh out loud, as well as many deep thought provoking moments to ponder in this truly marvelous production of religious power politics at play.
English actor David Suchet stars as Cardinal Benelli in this amazing work that has travelled far and wide bringing its meaningful message to the world.
Whether you are religious or not, this is an outstanding intelligent piece of on-stage theatre excellence. It’s riveting stuff.
It was not hard to be overwhelmingly awe struck at the power moves going on between the characters, as we were drawn into the complex world that makes up The Vatican at Rome.
This is a credit to the actors, the writer and the director’s skills. They all made us believe we are voyeurs of nail biting history in the making.
Would Benelli’s confession make it into print? Or just like the papers Pope John Paul 1 was working on the day he died, would it also disappear too?
There is no doubt this play is having an impact as it lets many people know and understand some of the diabolical dynamics that exist between power, politics, the structure of the Christian church and faith.
When the play begins the Cardinal is wrestling with the fact the seemingly gentle humanitarian Pope John Paul 1 (1978) has died both suddenly and mysteriously.
Found dead sitting up in bed on September 28, 1978 the former Cardinal Albino Luciani had been elected head of the Roman Catholic Church only 33 days before.
He had also been elected against all odds to the top job that many believed he wasn’t able to handle.
Conspiracy theories are rife in our world today and the one that he was murdered by those close to him is so powerful that all these years later it still will not go away.
David Suchet has been with this play since its very beginning.
There are no flamboyant gestures, just fury and frustration for the rum hand his character has been dealt while he works hard to ensure the right man for the job becomes Pope. This is a star turn.
As Benelli he champions the man he knows if elected unlike himself, will not deviate from committing totally to the task at hand.
Luciani won’t be flattered into shirking the reforms he must put in place. They are changes the hierarchy of the church must submit too if it is to remain relevant in the modern age. But it’s easier said than done as we soon find out. Human ambition is at the core.
Richard O’Callaghan is entirely convincing as the newly elected Pope John Paul 1. He’s not what he seems at first making his change more dramatic.
While he may seem humble and agreeable as we discover once he become Pope he finds he is more than well equipped to complete the groundbreaking reforms his two predecessors had not finished implementing.
Once committed to the task he finds within himself a strength of purpose that grows in momentum as he goes forward. This quickly terrified many around him. They suddenly saw their comfortable plum positions becoming a thing of the past!
All those perks ending; living in marble encrusted Michelangelo inspired grand surroundings; being driven about; having fresh linens to wear every day you don’t have to launder yourself. Then there are Swiss guards in gorgeous array to ensure your safety.
There are wonderful dinners with famous people and everywhere you go local people genuflect, kiss your ring and fete you just like a celebrity.
The question remains. How do you equate the church and all of its Baroque grandeur in this day and age with the qualities of a humble Christ, the man who was a carpenter named Jesus. For many it is and remains a puzzlement.
David Suchet is entirely mesmerizing in his pivotal role as Benelli, the Cardinal who puts him into the top job.
We cannot help but admire how brilliantly he asserts himself dramatically on stage. He has a great ability to fill us with compassion for Benelli’s self-doubts.
He moves effortlessly from playing Hercule Poirot everyone’s favourite Belgian detective on television onto a Papal commune stage platform for delivering the ideas of religious politics with great distinction.
He rises above the towering character actors who surround him and certainly deserved his standing ovation at the Melbourne premiere. He is compelling to watch.
His colleagues are also not only challenging, but brilliant each in their own roles to play. All their characters are distinguished, very finely drawn and wonderfully achieved.
All the elements of Italian corruption in politics are present, including mafia members in charge of the Vatican treasury.
You cannot invent this stuff, surely it must be true!
David Suchet is the narrator of this story and there is a truly wonderful dynamic happening between Philip Craig as The Confessor and Suchet as Cardinal Benelli.
They both hover between good and evil, as well as the world of angels and demons as they duel intellectually, philosophically and theologically about what had transpired.
Melbourne is the second last destination on a six-month world tour of this outstanding play with its large ensemble cast working and travelling together.
There are some 20 admirable actors offering individual and distinguished performances, who have been gathered from England, Canada the USA and Australia.
Before coming down under they appeared on stage in Toronto and Los Angeles. They have been to Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide before Melbourne, and they will be finishing at Sydney in October.
Pope John Paul 1 (1978) was the first pontiff to have a double name, choosing ‘John Paul’ in honour of his two immediate predecessors.
He was wanting to carry forward the work of Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), who had wanted to open the windows of the church to the wider world.
Richard O’Callaghan is quite wonderful, entirely convincing as the meek and mild priest who rises gloriously to the occasion. We feel his compassion and admire his strength.
Pope John XXIII had been concerned the church had become isolated and that its unwieldy structure left it wide open to corruptive forces. He was not wrong.
Later named a Saint, John XXIII began enacting reforms that would see the church collaborating with other faiths in the world, following reconciliation.
In between both John and John Paul was Paul VI (1963-1978) and he appears in this in the guise of Donald Douglas. His reign proved indecisive, because he had willingly embraced a ‘median’ road, which only led to disaster and the undoing of so many reforms that had already happened.
The battle was taken up reluctantly by Pope John Paul 1. He initially refused the papacy, but reacted to the cardinals putting their faith in him. He realised he was fighting for far more than himself, but the soul of each individual in a church of millions of souls.
Amazingly they still had faith in the church, even though it had seemingly let most of its believers down in monumental fashion over the centuries.
John Paul alarmingly for many power brokers at the top had turned out to be far more liberal and determined than the reactionaries who had agreed to elect him, ever realised that he would, and could be.
And so he became a huge threat to their complacency, their lack of commitment and their own luxurious cushy existence.
They thought the new Pope would be easily manipulated and were indeed very surprised when he showed enormous strength of purpose, gaining momentum and resolve as he went along.
He was for the public the kind, gentle, warm human being the Roman Catholic world wanted in their head priest.
He captivated them all as he was a very skilled orator, able to express himself eloquently.
Pope John Paul wanted to revise Canon law, to preach and live the gospel, to promote unity and dialogue, as well as encourage world peace and social justice.
He abolished the ‘Papal Processional Mass’ where he would have been ‘crowned’.
Instead he took only the ‘ pallium’, the official stole of office, instead of being crowned with the Papal tiara, which was banished to the Vatican museum.
His fate was sealed when he endeavoured to remove four key players opposed to reforming the church.
He wanted to remove them from office by sending them back to their parishes and if the story is to believed, he had already begun the process.
Then he suddenly and inexplicably he died.
The play relates how he was busy putting the paper work in place and had informed each of those he was dismissing about his decision on the night of his death.
However no one can prove it because all his papers disappeared.
Mysteriously too he was hastily embalmed so an autopsy would not be carried out.
Ever since the Church as a body has refused to either question the strange and sudden manner of his death or find a way to satisfy anyone’s curiosity about a conspiracy.
The sets are brilliantly conceived, the lighting and costuming superbly detailed.
The show has been wonderfully choreographed to deal with many changes of scenery while the actor’s movements on stage are cleverly guided.
The plot follows a storyline based on many indisputable facts, which give it a powerful resonance.
The action is set in The Vatican at Rome where Benelli is preparing his last confession to be published publicly prior to his death.
This is a brilliantly written intelligent piece of prose from Roger Crane. He was a little known playwright at the time until it became a huge hit at the Chichester Festival Theatre in England (2007).
Since then it has stimulated and inspired ongoing intellectual debate wherever it has been shown and deservedly so.
What a wonderfully intelligent night out at the theatre it was.
After its success in England the play was taken up and on by an ensemble cast of experienced actors, producers and directors.
They did so despite not knowing if its subject would be of ‘interest’ to a larger and broader audience, deciding to run with it and find out by touring it internationally.
They have not been disappointed. It has met with great critical acclaim on its journey over the last seven years and on this particular international six month tour.
If the response of the audience in Melbourne at its premiere on September 3rd 2014 at The Comedy Theatre is any indication, the play will also be well received in Sydney, its final showing.
The acclamation was thunderous and heartfelt, with everyone around Janet Walker and I waxing lyrically about the excellence of the actors and the play and so we have both been inspired to pen a review without consultation.
For me this is a production sure to become a ‘classic’ piece of theatre. Easily Four and Half out of Five Stars from me.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014