Ambition is pitiless. Any merit that it cannot use it finds despicable. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
I doubt that The Last Confession by Roger Crane and starring David Suchet will be particularly well received when it reaches the Haymarket Theatre on July 4th. This is a pity because the play is well acted, well constructed, and well directed, and has an impressive set. It also has an excellent cast of thousands (actually 21 men and 1 woman, but you see what I mean). Above all, it retells a story that deserves to be remembered.
When Albino Luciano was elected Pope John Paul I in 1978 it would have been more appropriate if he had adopted the name Innocent XIV. For naïve he was and innocent he died. The play recounts the battle waged – and the victory won – by the reactionary Curia (Vatican Civil Service) against the reforms proposed by John XXIII in the second Vatican Council in 1962. The Cardinals in the Curia held back those reforms during the 15 year pontificate of the indecisive Paul VI after John XXIII's death. When Paul died, the Church's liberal faction – especially cardinals from Africa and Latin America – engineered the election of John Paul I, "The Smiling Pope."
John Paul I believed that, as the head of the church, it was his responsibility to decide on the Church's future direction, he wanted reform. But this was a naïve belief and he seriously underestimated the power and determination of his political opponents. When he told the world that he would carry out the promises of Vatican 2 and would brook no opposition, his enemies dug in their heels.
In his 33 days as Pope, he decided to rid the Curia of its arch reactionaries, including Cardinal Villot, (Bernard Lloyd) the Head of State, the most powerful man in the Vatican. He was also on the point of sending home to Chicago the corrupt Bishop Marcinkus (Stuart Milligan), head of the scandal-ridden Vatican Bank, who controlled the Church's purse-strings. Marcinkus, a native of Cicero Illinois (the home town of Al Capone) was involved with the Banco Ambrosiano, the P2 Masonic Lodge, and the Roberto Calvi affair. (In case you have forgotten, Calvi was known as God's Banker and was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London.) John Paul had crossed swords with Marcinkus before when the bishop facilitated the sale of the Catholic bank in Venice to Ambrosiano at a knock down price.
In order to frustrate his reforms Cardinal Villot had set about burying the new Pope under an avalanche of paperwork. During the night of the 33rd day of his pontificate, John Paul I died mysteriously in bed, still working through the papers. The previous day, he had told his three main opponents that they were about to be dismissed; he planned to sack Marcinkus the following day.
No autopsy was performed after the death of a man who had no history of illness and had complained of no symptoms of ill-health. A poorly conducted Vatican inquiry revealed a number of inconsistencies and discrepancies in witness accounts of the hours leading up to his death and the discovery of his body. And outright lies were told by officials. Since then, there have been a number of well-documented conspiracy theories suggesting that John Paul I was murdered, including an extensively-researched book by David Yallop (In God's Name), an author who specialises in investigating unsolved crimes.
The Last Confession is Roger Crane's first play. He is a lawyer based in New York and he tells his story well. He focuses on the fictional last confession of Cardinal Benelli, a powerful and ambitious Vatican Politician with a liberal outlook.
Masterfully portrayed by David Suchet, Benelli is instrumental in ensuring the election of Luciano in the hope that he will institute reforms. But his vanity is offended when the new Pope, brilliantly captured by Richard OCallaghan, does not immediately invite him to become Head of State. So he leaves his newly-elected protégé unprotected and surrounded by the wolves in the Curia.
Benelli confesses the guilt of this sin of omission, as well as a second sin, this time of commission. When he is tempted by the opportunity to be elected Pope himself, he abandons the inquiry into the John Paul I's death.
The confession is made to a priest who doubles as John Paul I's replacement Cardinal Wojtela, creating a link between this extraordinary story and the next pontificate.
However, despite the clever way in which all this is brought together, and the excellent use of narrative to bring out issues of conscience, the play lacks a soul. There was a 20 minute discussion between the actors, the director and the audience after the performance that I saw in Bath. I was bemused to hear that some of those involved in the production had had their faith strengthened by it. After watching a man of integrity and decency crushed by naked ambition and lust for power, I find it difficult to understand how anyone could maintain respect for the Catholic Church – whether Pope John Paul I was murdered or not.