Wednesday, April 30, 2014


The Last Confession
Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann
Reviewed by James Karas

On April 27, 2014, Karol Wojtyla was elevated by the Catholic Church to the status of a saint. His former name and position was that of Pope John Paul II and one is at a loss to find a suitable simile for the transformation from a former mortal to a saint. All other accolades from Nobel Prize, to Pulitzer to Oscar shrivel into insignificance compared to canonization.

Pope John Paul II (as he then was) appears as a character in The Last Confession, a play by Roger Crane, which is now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. The play is about the election to the papacy of Cardinal Albino Luciani who died under mysterious circumstances in the 33rd day of his tenure as Pope John Paul I in 1978. He was succeeded by John Paul II and I can safely reveal that the latter does not get a good review in the play. The Last Confession is a ripping play and a thriller and one must not reveal too much.

The play opened om April 27, 2014.

David Suchet plays Cardinal Benelli, the central character of the play. You will have to forget Suchet as the prissy Hercule Poirot of Agatha Christie mysteries. His Cardinal Benelli is a tough-minded, ambitious and principled cleric who wants to eradicate corruption form the Catholic Church. He is not beyond political machinations.

He is responsible for the election of Cardinal Luciani as pope who tries to clean out the Augean stables of the Catholic Church but is found dead in his bed. Richard O’Callaghan plays John Paul I as a simple, decent and likable man who shows unexpected toughness and determination as pontiff.   

John Paul I is surrounded by Cardinals, princes of the church, and Archbishops who are tough, power-hungry, conservative and often corrupt. They want to preserve the Church with all its power, majesty, traditions and ossified rituals and will brook no disagreement. Not even from the Pope. Cardinal and secretary of State Jean Villot (Nigel Bennett), Archbishop and Vatican banker Paul Marcinkus (Stuart Milligan), Cardinal Felici (John O’May), Cardinal Baggio (Kevin Colson) sabotaged the new Pope’s every step. The fine cast gave strong performances.

The play is structured around the confession of Benelli to a Confessor (Philip Craig). Benelli discloses his role in the election of Luciani and his own attempt to become pope. The revelations are, needless to say, quite shocking and the play and the superb production make for riveting theatre.

The play has a large and well-orchestrated cast of some twenty name roles plus some extras. The scene is set mostly in offices in the Vatican and the sets by William Dudley are effective easily movable for scene change.

Director Jonathan Church does excellent work keeping the pace and building up to the climactic revelations near the end of the play.

Crane is a lawyer and this is his first play. He includes some astute cross-examinations of the people who knew about the pope’s sudden death and we relish the disclosures that they make.

The Catholic Church has not been getting very good reviews lately and The Last Confession is another savage comment on the conduct of some of its top leaders.  The Toronto run of the play is the start of a delivery of that comment to Los Angeles and five cities in Australia.

It may be worth mentioning that Pope John Paul I was not canonized.   

The Last Confession  by Roger Crane opened on April 27 and will run until June 1, 2014 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont.

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