Review: The Pope (Royal and Derngate)

Anton Lesser stars in this new play based on the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI

Anton Lesser as Pope Benedict XVI and Nicholas Woodeson as Cardinal Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis)
Anton Lesser as Pope Benedict XVI and Nicholas Woodeson as Cardinal Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis)

You can't say writer Anthony McCarten doesn't make the most of his raw material. At the same time as this production of his new play treats audiences to a double-headed acting masterclass, he's also crafting the same story – of the real-life abdication of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013 – as a film. And a nonfiction book.

The film, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, is due out later this year. For real smugness points, though, (not to mention a genuinely dramatic experience) it's hard to beat this stage study in quiet excellence. A cerebral speculation on the obscure theological reasons behind the first papal resignation in more than 700 years? In Northampton on a rainy Wednesday night? Really?

Yes, really. And if anyone's too metrocentric to venture out of London to see it during its all-too-brief appearance, then more fool you. The production values, set and costume design (Jonathan Fensom), music (Anne Dudley), lighting (Charles Balfour), sound design (David Gregory) and direction (James Dacre) are all of the highest order, as befits a roll call like that. It looks sumptuous, sounds gorgeous and reveals its moderately niche Catholic narrative in a fascinating and gripping fashion.

And then there's the acting. Anton Lesser – back on a stage after years devoted to television and film – plays the ultra-conservative German traditionalist Benedict, grappling with the prospect of performing the most untraditional thing any pope has done for centuries. Opposite him is Nicholas Woodeson as the free-wheeling, tango-loving Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio, utterly at odds with the Holy Father over matters doctrinal and personal, yet emerging bafflingly as Benedict's anointed successor. The journey to that anointing forms the basis of McCarten's enthralling script.

There's some expository setting up in the first half with the capable aid of two supporting nuns (Lynsey Beauchamp and Faith Alabi) which could probably be a little pacier and less obviously backstory, but once Lesser and Woodeson are finally let loose together, all clashing styles and costumes, the result is electrifying. Even the line hesitations are made to look like character flaws in the hands of these two masters, who play thrillingly off each other and give depth and emotional heft to their respective clerics.

Lesser, with his Germanic rectitude and nervy attempted forays into clunky humour, is constantly mesmerising to watch, while Woodeson imbues the lower-ranking cardinal with all the fire and passion of South America. Their battles with their own beliefs, as much as each other, are intelligently and often wittily drawn out by McCarten: this is no dry church argument, but a spirited battle for the 1.2 billion souls of the world's Catholic believers.

The really clever trick, though, is to make what must be supposition and guesswork about character motives and conversations behind closed doors seem totally convincing, and the threads of thorough research, though lightly worn, are woven deep into the whole production. Lesser and Woodeson are, quite simply, divine.