THE LAST CONFESSION – a Review

Although not a Catholic, I feel, given the subject matter of the play, I should confess; I went to see THE LAST CONFESSION, as a fan of David Suchet, with only a cursory knowledge of the background story. And yes, as the lights flooded on to the red-robed Suchet in the opening scene, I too stood and applauded. Then, as that familiar, dulcet-toned voice flowed across the auditorium, for a moment I wondered whether both the actor and the audience would be able to overcome Poirot. Within a minute the effete Belgium had vanished, as the Cardinals and power reigned supreme.

The play is set during a tumultuous period in the Catholic Church history (1978) – Pope Paul V1 is in his dying days, Mafia connections have assumed control of the Vatican Bank and the Church is in crisis, Cardinal Giovanni Bennelli (Suchet), although a King Maker, has a moral compass of sorts, while at the same time, battling a crisis of faith. Determined to fix the problems with the out of control Vatican and specifically, the behind the scenes administration, known as the Curia, after the death of Pope Paul V1, (Donald Douglas), he manoeuvres his friend, Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice (Richard O’Callaghan) into the Papacy as a compromise candidate. Luciani assumes the name Pope John Paul 1, but the little man is far more determined, liberal and morally straight than his peers had suspected. In a strange way, I suddenly thought of Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party. Thirty three days into his reign, he informed two of the most powerful cardinals he was removing them. The next morning, Pope John Paul 1 was dead.

Evidence was tampered with on a scale that still beggars belief, no autopsy was permitted and the Vatican press releases of the time, giving his cause of death as a heart attack were found lacking in substance, to say the least! Cardinal Benelli, as always, positions himself centre stage in the battle to elect a replacement Pope, eventually finding himself just five votes short of becoming Pope.

I found this work to be absolutely enthralling, forget the red robed cardinals and the white robed Popes, this is a story of the naked grab for and the need of power. It could just as well have been about politicians – Rudd and Gillard, Turnbull and Abbott, but perhaps most tellingly, it is the searing story of those faceless men who manoeuvre and manupulate in the shadows of power

The stage design is dark and brooding, suggesting great power, ancient beauty, but also malevolence. Outfitting stage hands in monks robes is a very clever, efficient method of moving sets with actors necessarily still on stage. Admittedly the mood of the work does make it easier to light the actors, but the reality is, the simple spotlighting of each actor as they emerge from the shadows works brilliantly.

The play is wordy, intense, almost claustrophobic and at times, I found myself on the edge of my seat, absolutely riveted. Yet there was also unexpected humour, much of it black, but clever and the technique of giving stage time to one woman, Sister Vincenza, played by Suchet’s wife of 37 years, Sheila Ferris, adds light and a sense of almost normal life. There is a lovely domestic scene between her and Pope John Paul 1. This first work by American playwright Roger Crane, under the direction of Jonathon Church, is simply brilliant, as is David Suchet, which is not to dismiss the superb work of the other actors.

It is a large ensemble of 20 actors, but rather than name them all, it is testimony to the power of the story and the actors that Poirot was nowhere to be seen. It is a fabulous cast. Even if you are a David Suchet, if your supporting actors aren’t up there with you, you will not fly. This cast soars.

Finally, as the realisation hit me as to who the Confessor was, I found myself understanding the words of an Italian prosecutor, reprinted in the programme: “… hopefully Pope Francis will be given enough time to make his changes …”

Real life – if you wrote about it, nobody would believe it, they’d swear you made it up.

The Perth season (His Majesty’s Theatre) finishes on Sat 16th August

Brisbane, the Lyric Theatre, Aug 20 -24th

Adelaide, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Aug 27 – 31st

Melbourne, Comedy Theatre, Sep 3 – 5th

Tickets from Ticketek and Ticketmaster

Greg Ross

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