There is certainly plenty for every closet conspiracy theorist to enjoy in Chichester's new play The Last Confession. Part murder mystery, part Manchurian Candidate, this handsomely designed production deals with the behind-the-scenes shenanigans in the Vatican leading to the death of “smiling Pope” John Paul I who died (or was knocked off, depending on who you believe) in 1978 after a reign of just 33 days.
This is well-trodden grounds and has already been the subject of a best-seller (David Yallop's In God's Name), numerous documentaries and even a Sub-theme in Francis Ford Copolla's Godfather III. By all accounts Cardinal Albino Luciani, a humble priest who loved the poor and wanted the church to improve the quality of life for Catholics, angered Church conservatives with his liberal ideas when he become Pope. He was about to put an end to the Machiavellian antics of those who dealt with Vatican finances, including Roberto Calvi - then President of Banco Ambrosiana – whose body was found hanging from London's Blackfriars Bridge in 1982.
Told through the speculative last confession of Cardinal Benelli (the Pope's self-doubting and guilt-ridden friend) to an anonymous confessor, cynics might say that this is a mix and match of Julius Caesar without the big speeches, Amadeus without the insight and Agatha Christie without the denouement. Certainly Roger Crane's lightly written workman-like script draws on inspiration from a variety of sources, but to be fair it tells a convoluted story with a multitude of characters and suspects with foreign sounding names in a page-turning style of which Dan Brown would be proud.
Benelli (David Suchet, ex moustache, Belgian accent and funny walk] is a real character who ran for the Papacy himself but only succeeded in being a Pope-maker. As the sleuth who tries to uncover the truth and, needless to say, is endowed with more stature than the writing alone provides, he is at his best when cross-examining three suspect cardinals portrayed with villainous relish by Bernard Lloyd, Charles Kay, and Bruce Purchase.
In a large cast ensemble show which is performed with obvious enjoyment by all concerned it is perhaps invidious to single out individual performances, but of special note is Richard O' Callaghan's John Paul I who manages to signify inner strength beneath sincere humility, John Franklyn-Robbin's ironic Cardinal Ottaviani and Clifford Rose's regal and diplomatic Pope Paul VI.
Directed apace in a seamless and cinematic fashion by David Jones and beautifully designed by William Dudley, sometimes this attempt to lay themes of faith, the nature of power, and the purpose of the Church onto what is basically a whodunit causes the author to lose focus.
For those who like to speculate on what went on behind the grassy knoll, and indeed for anyone who likes an engrossing and entertaining evening in the theatre, The Last Confession is a must see this summer.
- Stephen Gilchrist