The Last Confession

Roger Crane
A Chichester Festival Production in association with Duncan C. Weldon and Paul Elliott
Chichester Fetival Theatre
(2007)

Production photo by John Haynes

In 1978 Pope Paul V1 died and was succeeded by Cardinal Albino Luciani who took the name John Paul in honour of his predecessors. Thirty three days later he too was dead, ostensibly of a heart attack, but mystery surrounds his sudden death and it took eight ballots in secret conclave before the bishops could finally decide on their next spiritual leader.

New York lawyer Roger Crane sensed a story to be told and with his analytical legal mind has written a murder mystery taking the style of a courtroom drama. The confession is that of Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, Luciani’s friend and sponsor, whose feelings of guilt were due to the part he played in Luciani’s election, the fact that he was not present to give him support against hostile cardinals, and his own aspirations for power. Here he leads an interrogation to determine the actual events which led to the death, while at the same time questioning his own faith.

Richard O’Callaghan is a benign and cheerful “Smiling Pope” who was also a reluctant pope, rejecting the grandeur and formality of the church and wishing only to help the people, but his ideas for change were not welcomed by the reactionary cardinals, Charles Kay’s Fellici, Bernard Lloyd’s Villot and Bruce Purchase’s Cardinal Baggio. The night prior to his death John Paul had threatened to replace them. He also intended to deal with the elements of the Mafia who controlled the Vatican finances, with some very nefarious dealings taking place, and was determined to send Bishop Paul Marcinkus, the governor of the Vatican bank (also known as The Gorilla), back to his native Chicago. Could this be why he had to die? Marcinkus also had connections with Roberto Calvi whose body was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in 1982 – the plot thickens!

A fifteen strong cast of very illustrious actors have been assembled to play out the drama, headed by David Suchet who researched his role very carefully, paying a visit to the Vatican and even going into a retreat with an order of Benedictine monks to experience life in a religious community. He conducts Benelli’s interrogation of the bishops calmly, firmly and reasonably (a world away from his famous Hercule Poirot character) querying why everything surrounding the deceased had been so quickly destroyed and why the body had been embalmed so speedily leaving no chance of an autopsy.

The whole is played out against William Dudley’s impressive background of towering metal structures with magnificent doors and windows, the designs taken from Michaelangelo’s originals, with the opulence of the Vatican glimpsed beyond. These edifices move easily to form more intimate areas but with rather more distracting scene changes than seem strictly necessary

This is Crane’s first play, and dialogue introducing the multitude of characters dragged a little at the beginning, but it soon got into its stride and developed (under David Jones’s expert direction) into a fast paced, gripping thriller keeping the audience engrossed to the end although, without denigrating any of the excellent cast, it is Suchet’s magnetising introspective performance which enthrals.

No answers can be given to the mystery of the pope’s death but the play asks plenty of questions. Is a good pope one who conceals the truth for the sake of the Church, or should the truth be told regardless? I don’t think the Vatican has decided yet!

Running until 19th May

Philip Fisher reviewed this production on its transfer to the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Reviewer: Sheila Connor