Religious turmoil has been the central subject of key plays and films including The Crucible, Measure for Measure, Mass Appeal, I Confess, Black Narcissus and Priest.
In 1978 the Catholic Church faced its own crisis of council when Pope John Paul 1 died only one month into his reign. His shocking and unexpected death made newspaper headlines around the world.
Soon concerns began to emerge not only about the Pope’s sudden demise, who discovered the body, the time of death, and what he was reading, but when, where or whether an autopsy could be conducted. These factual anomalies triggered several conspiracy theories, the most notorious being the Vatican Bank’s association with the mafia – connected Banko Ambrosiano.
The Last Confession uses the above elements as the basis for its powerhouse story, and how these linked events almost threatened to topple the two thousand year old institution. Built and billed as a mystery – thriller, the show is divided into two clear parts.
Divided by a thirty – minute interval, each act is approximately one hour in length.
As authored by Roger Crane, God’s representatives may be colleagues working for a common spiritual cause. However, they are also portrayed as stern arch – rivals determined to hold or increase their individual power, financial wealth and status within the global organisation.
Directed by Jonathan Church with the luxury of time and place on his side, he carefully introduces us in act one to the strictures and ancient rituals attached to Vatican and the greater Roman Catholic Church. The Last Confession also allows audience members to know and understand in significant depth, the main players running the religion.
Thanks to Fotini Dimou’s rich and realistic costume design, it is like watching a big boy’s club chess game unfold before our eyes. Each character’s colour – coded garb significantly reinforces that man’s entitled sense of hierarchy and position.
A seven – time Olivier Award winner, the inspired set design is by William Dudley. He has recreated the Vatican as a zigzag series of rich marble doorways fused to ornate yet foreboding iron gates. His vision is like a fortress designed to keep prying eyes out, and a prison to metaphorically lock high – ranking members in.
Dudley’s staging is complimented by Peter Mumford’s precise and impeccable lighting design. In Mumford’s care, dramatic tension and mood are established early.
Further, Dominic Muldowney’s masterful music composition gives The Last Confession a particularly insidious undercurrent.
As the man above the title, David Suchet is a British film, television and stage actor whose career has spanned almost 50 years. He is particularly known on TV for playing Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, a role Suchet has recreated on air many times.
As both the show’s star and main attraction, Suchet has the pivotal narrative role of Cardinal Giovanni Bernelli. Fans of Suchet’s work won’t be disappointed. The actor is clearly in his element here.
As the chief engineer in electing John Paul 1, his character is a complex man. Bernelli may be driven to greater heights by his innate ambition, yet as a witness to the questionable actions of those around him, he becomes torn in his commitment to God.
Was the Pope’s passing a death by natural causes or foul play?
Where act one lays the show’s groundwork, it is in act two that The Last Confession truly takes off. Suchet may swap Poirot's trademark bowler hat for a priest’s zucchetto, but he nevertheless goes into full detective mode. In the closing thirty minutes, Bernelli targets several characters as prime suspects.
The twenty – strong international cast is from the United Kingdom, North America and Australia. Standouts performances include Richard O’Callaghan as Cardinal Albino Luciani / John Paul 1, John O’May as Cardinal Pericle Felici, Stuart Milligan as Bishop Paul Marcinkus, Kevin Colson as Cardinal Baggio, and Philip Craig as The Confessor.
Suchet’s wife, Sheila Ferris plays Sister Vincenza. Interestingly, Ferris is the only female cast member in the show, adding an authentic sense of male dominance to the hallowed halls of higher power.
To appreciate its full impact, The Last Confession is a fascinating and scholarly piece of history that should probably not be seen cold. For people unfamiliar with the tale, it is best viewed reading a little into the back – story and the scandalous outfall first.