Review The Two Popes - Anton Lesser & Nicholas Woodeson - photo by Manuel Harlan

Review: The Two Popes

Review: The Two Popes

There’s much to admire in this play about the papacy


Mention The Two Popes and you’ll hear people rave about the smash hit film starring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins – the Netflix movie somewhat overshadowed the play that inspired it, The Pope, which came out first, was well received but had only a short run in Northampton in 2019. But it’s back with a name change and the original cast of Anton Lesser (Game of Thrones, The Crown, Endeavour) and Nicholas Woodeson (Baptiste, The Death of Stalin, The Danish Girl) in the title roles. The story is based on Pope Benedict XVI’s shock resignation and his replacement by tango-loving reformer Cardinal Bergoglio, who became Pope Francis, and the subject matter is weighty, running through crises in the Catholic Church, and raising questions about faith, guilt and complicity.

Two old pontiffs pontificating on life, religion and the universe could get rather self-absorbed and gloomy but in the hands of writer Anthony McCarten, whose credits include Bohemian Rhapsody and The Theory of Everything, it also has humour. The script is witty and laugh-out-loud funny.

Both characters are portrayed as very human and fallible figures. Lesser and Woodeson are excellent in the roles. Lesser’s Pope Benedict is a frail old man but also rather childlike in his love for soup and his habit for watching a favourite TV show. Woodeson’s Pope Francis is a gregarious contrast as the larger-than-life Argentinian with a passion for football. Yet we see them fall into dark despair and we get some insight into the torment at what has happened in their lives and in the church.

The first half takes a while to get going while the characters are established but then the magic happens as you see the dynamic between the two popes. There are points though where you feel some of the major issues are brushed over and a little more time allowed for Pope Benedict’s anguish in particular would have added more depth.

The staging works well and while it is sparse it is clever, with the proscenium arch used to create a frame for settings such as the Sistine Chapel. Religious music and a range of sound effects, including a cheering crowd outside the Vatican, help evoke the atmosphere.

Overall, director James Dacre has done a deft job and it is a compelling couple of hours.

Rose Theatre Kingston, until 23 September And then touring.

Read our interview with Anton Lesser

Image by Manuel Harlan