The events surrounding the untimely death of Pope John Paul I are explored in detail by playwright Roger Crane in this new drama about politics, in-fighting, financial wheeling and dealing, plotting, friendship, pride and loss of faith. After a successful run at the Chichester Festival Theatre and a national tour, the Vatican has come to the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Caroline Bishop entered its walls for the first night of The Last Confession.
When the 65-year-old Pope John Paul I died in 1978, he had been in office for only 33 days. The official line was a heart attack, but there was no autopsy, and a quick embalmment and funeral followed. Speculation was rife that the Pope, a liberal-minded man who wanted to implement wide-ranging change in the Catholic Church – starting with the sacking of high ranking conservative stalwarts – could have been murdered. Five years later, the rumours were fuelled by the death of Roberto Calvi, a banker associated with the Vatican, who was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge.
These are the facts around which Crane develops his complex and intriguing play, set before the Pope’s election, during his short reign and after his death. It is told from the perspective of Cardinal Benelli, enemy of the conservatives, shrewd politician and the man who engineered the election of his reluctant friend Cardinal Luciani as Pope John Paul I. We first meet a frail and bitter Benelli five years after the death of John Paul, as he makes his final confession to the cloaked Confessor. Together, they take us back to the events leading up to the Pope’s election and subsequent death.
All of the first half is dedicated to what happened before John Paul I died, and, like a classic murder mystery, it is the details from this build-up that suggest the possible perpetrators of the ‘murder’ in the second, and indeed the possible method of poisoning – the Pope had a penchant for sweets and coffee.
It is also a fascinating look into the workings of the Vatican – as Crane depicts them. The political allegiances and backstabbing, the formalities and customs that hang like a dead weight around the new Pope’s neck, the official line of the Vatican’s administrative body, the Curia, which curbs the Pope’s attempts at reform. Faith takes a back seat here.
This is also a very personal story, as Benelli relates the anguish he feels at his part in the death of his friend, who he pushed to be Pope against his will and then, out of pride, left to fight off the wolves in the Vatican’s walls by himself. The imposing David Suchet plays Benelli as a man who can’t reconcile his faith with the political machinations of the Vatican, even more so when his great friend and liberal hope is found dead. Richard O’Callaghan plays Cardinal Luciani as a gentle, humble, yet surprisingly strong man who never wanted to be Pope, but once in office begins the process of shaking its walls with a potentially explosive cocktail of reform. Above all, Crane’s play tells the personal tragedy of a man who wanted to do good, but died too soon.