“The Last Confession” An Emotional Exorcism
At the Theatre with Audrey Linden
It was a thrill to see The Chichester Festival Theatre Production of “The Last Confession” starring the remarkable David Suchet at the Ahmanson. Roger Crane wrote a fine and very compelling play about the politics of the Vatican and the intrigue and mystery surrounding the death of Pope John Paul in 1978. Pope John Paul only served thirty-three days before he mysteriously died. This startling account sheds new light on his death. And, it is interesting to note the New Pope Francis, who comes some thirty years later has instituted some of the reforms that Pope John Paul may have been killed over. This is such a top-quality production with a brilliant ensemble of 20 actors directed by Jonathan Church. “The Last Confession” production at the Ahmanson is part of a world tour. It started in Toronto and will go to Perth and end in the United Kingdom after playing in many other cities.
William Dudley’s eerily beautiful set shows a courtyard with a monastic feel. There were wire cages which had the feeling of confessionals. They were moved around to accommodate the interior office scenes. The sound effects by Chris Cronin and Josh Liebert added immensely to the tone of intrigue as did the lighting design by Peter Mumford.
The play opens with Suchet’s Cardinal Benelli threatening to publish his “Last Confession” for the world to read. He is dying and wants the truth to be told about the death of his friend Cardinal Albino Luciani, who became Pope John Paul. Suchet’s mellifluous voice sent chills down my spine. He is known for his portrayal of Hercule Poirot and starred in all 74 of the T V films of Agatha Christie’s works. He is an Associate Artist and Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has done stage, television, film, and has a long list of very impressive credits that ran two columns in the program.
The story is told in flashback to the Confessor, (Phillip Craig) as the current Pope, Paul VI, who at 80 is retiring. We see the machinations and politics of the Cardinals at the Vatican as a successor is sought as the drama and mystery of the past unfolds. At times, both Cardinal Benelli and the Confessor stand and watch the events as bystanders.
Pope Paul V I, (Donald Douglas) wanted Giovanni Benelli (David Suchet) to be considered as Pope but Benelli, who had strong reform ideas, was not popular with the other Cardinals and promoted the naive, spiritual Albino Luciani. Luciani was a man with great heart, warmth and spirituality. He was Cardinal in his church in Venice, and had come to his friend, Cardinal Benelli to ask him to intercede when Bishop Marcinkus (Stuart Mulligan) was taking over the Bank of Venice and selling it to corrupt Cavelli, a man of questionable repute, at far less than it was worth. Cardinal Luciani wanted the money to be used to support religious organizations in need. Thus, we have corporate issues much like we have in today’s world. The Church is a business, as we are reminded in this play. This was the business of the Vatican Bank, and Bishop Marcinkus was the unscrupulous man who dealt with the gangster world. The FBI was investigating a multi-million dollar fraud.
Pope Paul VI thought Cardinal Benelli was “the Pope, who could be ruthless”. Benelli resisted and replied, “Men do not choose a Pope; God does.” Paul VI wanted to use power to further the life of Christ.” Benelli questioned his faith even then. “God abandoned me.” He supports Cardinal Luciani, who really does not want to become a leader and certainly did not seem to have the strong qualities Pope Paul V I was looking for as a replacement.
Luciani was elected, thanks in large to Benelli’s influence. And, from the start, this shy man, short of stature, started to institute reforms that angered and shocked the other Cardinals in the inner circle. He wanted to walk on foot alone into St. Peter’s Church among his people. He was not to be dissuaded. He was for artificial insemination and would not condemn those who used it. Richard O’Callaghan did such a convincing job in creating this rather loveable and shy man. I came to car for him.
Trouble set in as Pope John Paul wanted to remove those he thought unscrupulous as Bishop Marcinkus, who oversaw the Vatican’s investments at the Bank. Marcinkus was of the belief, “You can’t run a church on Hail Marys”. Pope John Paul thought Marcinkus was missed in his home town of Cicero, Chicago and promised to “hopefully get you home soon.” Thus, the shy man, short of stature, was shipping those out he felt corrupt and who were against his reforms. Trouble in the Vatican.
Benelli ruminated he had set his friend up to be Pope rather than run for the papacy himself and abandoned him. He walked away from being Secretary of State and left the Pope in Rome, “surrounded by his enemies, who inundated him with tomes of work.
Another source of contention was the new Pope wanted his article on accepting artificial insemination in the Courier and did not want his article changed. He hinted that the editors also were not indispensable. No one had counted on this little man asserting such reforms. The other Cardinals thought he would destroy the Church and their positions. The Vatican inner workings in this play portrayed these men of God as no different than corporate greedy businessmen.
Pope John Paul finally asked Cardnial Benelli to come back as Secretary of State, which meant the current Secretary of State had to leave. It was a kind of “over my dead body” or “over your dead body.” Pope John Paul’s actions threatened many Cardinals.
We saw Pope John Paul’s secretary going over his desk. When the Pope asked him what he was doing, he remarked he was looking for a book. But all the books were in the bookcase. What was he doing? The next morning, Pope John Paul was found dead with his papers in bed. The cause was allegedly a heart attack. No autopsy was performed. Why?
Benelli’s guilt led him to demand an investigation and also an autopsy. The lists Pope John Paul was working on mysteriously disappeared and were destroyed. Why? Evidence had been destroyed. Monsignor Mc Gee had been shipped out. Why? To suppress the truth. Many of these ruthless Cardinals opposed the drastic reforms and feared they would be stripped of their jobs and sent back to run parishes. The step-by-step laying out of motives was fascinating and so interesting. “God made him Pope, men killed him.” The Cardnials sold out for power, and may have murdered to keep their power. Men of God?
The Cardinals preyed on Benelli and convinced him not to force an autopsy and also to run for the papacy. “Justice for one dead man or the life of Christ Church.” Benelli threw the vote. He was left with his conscience and guilt over the death of his friend, as he questioned his faith. Would he expose the Cardinals and have an investigation through his “Last Confession”.
Crane’s writing was dynamically compelling, stirring and utterly thought provoking. I was as swept away in the intrigue and mystery of these real events as I was in the story about one man’s search for faith and belief in God. Director Jonathan Church’s direction was so excellent. He moved his actors in and out of scenes as the set was miraculously changed. This production is a “must-see”. It was thoroughly enjoyable on so many levels. We rarely get a production as satisfying on so many levels. This is a gem.
“The Last Confession” at the Ahmanson, 601 W. Temple St, L. A. runs through July 6th. Tickets are $40 through $105. Call 213-628-2772 for tickets or go on line to www.centertheatregroup.org
Audrey Linden is a writer, actress and singer. She can be seen in a long-running “Associated Tax Resolution” commercial, two “Little Caesars” spots, a “Teva International Pharmaceutical” short, Gene Simmons’ “Family Jewels,” “America’s Court with Judge Ross,” VHS “Tough Love 2,” “Wendy’s” etc.
Audrey teaches ON CAMERA COMMERCIAL and IMPROV COMEDY WORKSHOPS through the City of Beverly Hills. To register, call 310-285-6850. Her classes are held at 241 Moreno Dr. B.H. 90212. Her classes are on-going in June through July and start again in September. For more information, contact Audrey at firstname.lastname@example.org