The Two Popes Review

Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge – until Saturday 1st October 2022

Reviewed by Steph Lott


In recent days, with the death of Queen Elizabeth II, succession is a theme which is very much at the forefront of many people’s minds. In The Two Popes, director Fernando Meirelles and screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who wrote the screenplays for The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, and Bohemian Rhapsody, offer a dramatisation of what happened in 2013, when Pope Benedict XVI shook the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics by becoming the first pontiff to step down in 700 years. He was the first pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415, and the first to do so on his own initiative since Celestine V in 1294.

This play, (which was turned into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce), is a speculation on what might have happened behind the scenes when Pope Benedict met the charismatic Argentinian Jorge Bergoglio, who would eventually succeed him and become the current Pope Francis. For the first time in human history, the world had two living popes.

The retiring Pope is played here by Anton Lesser, with Nicholas Woodeson as Francis. The portrayal of both men is full of warmth; how diverse they are and the issues and guilt that weigh so heavily upon them, is very skilfully depicted and I very much enjoyed the contrasts between the two men.

Their big debate was concerning whether the Catholic Church should renew or transform its 2,000-year-old traditions. Both McCarten and the actors focus on the two men as human beings who find themselves overwhelmed by the huge responsibility of taking that decision. It is not clear that it is even a responsibility that they want.

Lesser’s Benedict is an intellectual and an almost innocent soul. He has less experience of the material pleasures of the world and is much more conservative compared to Woodeson’s Francis who loves to tango and watch football.

Both popes have events in their past which cause them shame and guilt. However, despite their imperfections and misgivings, one of them must shoulder the burden of the papacy.

In addition to Lesser and Woodeson’s standout performances, I very much enjoyed the depiction of their respective nuns, who are both supportive yet challenging at times. (Lynsey Beauchamp and Leaphia Darko).

I loved the set and the staging. James Dacre’s production is tender yet intense. I was moved by the sounds of ‘Gloria! Gloria!’ echoing round the stage amid wafts of incense and ethereal lighting.

This is a thoughtful and moving production and one that definitely delights. ‘The Two Popes’ is a fascinating dramatised window into the events in the lives of two men who hold unique roles.