The Last Confession review (Comedy Theatre, Melbourne)

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I know not of this “Hercule Poirot”, the Agatha Christie creation that David Suchet turned into a television staple. There were 74 episodes made over more than two decades; no wonder the crowd at the Comedy Theatre for the opening of The Last Confession in Melbourne broke into disruptive applause at the first appearance of his shiny scalp.

But I did see Suchet on stage (via online broadcast) in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Apollo Theatre in London a couple of years back. Opposite the wonderful American actress Laurie Metcalf, it was a masterful (Olivier Award-nominated) performance. Suchet is one of those actors that make you sit up in the chair. Beyond the commanding, classically trained voice a well of emotion bubbles and threatens to spill over at any moment.

O’Neill’s patriarch is a proud, strong-willed man haunted by history and racked with doubt. Suchet creates a character of similar struggles here, less powerfully perhaps, in an absorbing two-and-a-half hour Vatican thriller that blasts the cobwebs from a theatre that has seen plenty of bombs in its recent history.

Think John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, a Pulitzer winner like Long Day, and its interrogation of an apparently incompatible state of church being: faith and distrust. With just a dose of the deadly ruthlessness of House Of Cards thrown in. It’s great dramatic fodder.

This is Suchet’s star vehicle, driven from the Chichester Festival Theatre in Sussex in 2007 to London’s West End and on to an international tour this year in North America and Australia. It’s been in Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide, and there’s still Sydney to come. Suchet, 68, almost never off stage, is running a marathon each night without breaking a sweat. God help the understudy that robs any Poirot-loving audience of his appearance.

But there’s more here than a star performer. There’s a solid play, too, from a first-time lawyer-turned-playwright, what’s more, in American Roger Crane. From the pages of history, Crane has crafted a clever whodunit as deliciously knotty as any of Aunty’s Friday night BBC fare. This is raw papal politics, as dirty as any government; wildly ambitious men with divine conviction clawing their way to power.

In many ways The Last Confession is burdened by the tangled power struggles — Mafia men and dodgy financial deals and all — within the Catholic Church beginning in the 1960s. But its sharp focus on the tragically short reign of Pope John Paul I in 1978, in well-staged vignettes seen through the eyes of Suchet’s powerful numbers-man progressive cardinal Giovanni Benelli, wraps up thousands of years of theology in gripping character study and a crowd-pleasing bow. As Crane writes in the program, it speaks to the future of the Catholic Church as much now as then:

“For 33 days in 1978 a battle was fought for the soul of the Catholic Church. In the end because of the untimely and suspicious death of John Paul I nothing changed. Now 36 years later Pope Francis has begun that battle again with all the entrenched powers, the Vatican Bank, the Curia, the powerful conservative cardinals that fought Pope John Paul I. An Italian prosecutor said recently that hopefully Pope Francis will be given enough time to make his changes. We can only pray that he is given the time and has greater success.”

Under British director Jonathan Church, this travelling theatre roadshow is in sparkling shape. Its sparse set of light and shadows, its faithful costuming in hues of red and gold and black, its faintly haunting soundtrack, even the potent whiff of incense in one scene, creates a space for performers — an esteemed and large 20-strong multinational cast — to shine. All do, not just Suchet. Veteran locals John O’May, George Spartels and Kevin Colson are strong in key parts as scheming cardinals. Richard O’Callaghan, a Brit familiar from the Carry On films, is a wonderful presence as the naive but determined new pope.

Come for Poirot, whoever that is. Stay for a tightly-wound, riveting night of theatre.

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