The current British stage revival of The Two Popes may be one of the only things in the country to benefit from the recent death of the Queen.
Opening at the Rose Theatre, Kingston on the 9th September, curtains rose just over 24 hours after the announcement of Her Majesty’s death. Directed by James Dacre, Anton Lesser (Game of Thrones, The Crown) and Nicholas Woodeson (Taboo, The Living and the Dead) reprise their roles from the play’s successful 2019 run at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton (then simply titled The Pope). The play was later adapted (and renamed) by Netflix, and imagines conversations between Pope Benedict XVI (Lesser) and the then-Cardinal Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis; Woodeson) as Benedict considers his resignation.
Lesser and Woodeson are, unsurprisingly, a delight. In the opening scene, Lesser gives us a spry, twinkling pontiff–a refreshing change from the general portrayal of Benedict having been basically embalmed upon arrival. When in papal garb, however, he is transformed–arch, other-wordly. Woodeson is every inch Bergoglio–soft all over, even down to his impeccable rolling Argentinian accent. Seeing two great British actors duke it out on stage rarely disappoints, and the second act especially flies by as they trade blows.
The actors deserve all the more credit for this since McCarten’s script never passes up an opportunity to evidence that it was written by a man who does not appear to have even the slightest passing interest in Roman Catholicism. Although raised Catholic, McCarten confesses to never having paid much attention until Francis came along, which is rather like tuning into season 11 of The Walking Dead and backing yourself to write a decent retrospective of the whole thing.
The “tension” of the play is that Benedict–theological genius, uber-conservative–has hit a spiritual dry patch, until, suddenly, God tells him to resign and hand over to Francis, the tango-dancing, wishy-washy Jesuit. “That’s not how it works” you say, but this is the writer who burdened us with Bohemian Rhapsody and Darkest Hour (you’d forgotten about the latter, hadn’t you), so he doesn’t appear to know how rockstars or Prime Ministers work either. The script pretends to be about the line between change and compromise, but in the end resolves like any Disney movie about intergenerational conflict: the elder conceding everything, the younger conceding only the embarrassing admission of affection.
And yet the death of the Queen suddenly threw other aspects of the script into sharper focus, raising them almost from the level of harmony to that of the melody. “Who gets a new job at 78?!”–Lesser’s delivery here drew a long, double laugh from the audience, and we all knew why. The play’s title, as mentioned, has evolved from The Pope to The Two Popes, but, watching now, the presence of an invisible third character seemed to press in: the Chair of St. Peter itself. What do we ask of a human being–with all their sins, frailties, and penchants for creature comforts–in placing such power and glory upon them? The script neatly parallels Benedict and Francis as both being unsure whether, as mere mortals, to bear a heavenly calling that might be the death of them. Lesser and Woodeson each visibly buckle beneath the weight of the office, frightfully human.
Despite the script’s shortcomings then, falling between two monarchs has made The Two Popes an unexpectedly timely revival.
The Two Popes played at the Rose Theatre, Kingston-upon-Thames from 9-23 September 2022. Subsequent dates have included the Everyman Theatre, Chelentham; Oxford Playhouse; and Royal & Derngate, Northampton.