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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Flutsch

The Two Popes


Review: The Two Popes, a play produced by the Rose Theatre, Everyman Theatre, Oxford Playhouse, Royal & Derngate, Anthology Theatre and Tara Finney Productions, on tour throughout the UK; in Oxford until 22 October and in Bath until 29 October.

[Disclosure: I received free tickets, as well as a free programme and free drinks for the purposes ofthis review.]

The Two Popes is the theatrical adaptation of the events surrounding the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013. Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was famously ultra-conservative; he felt that the strength of the Catholic Church lay in its immutability. The reasons behind Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation have never been made clear.

Anton Lesser as Pope Benedict XVI and Nicholas Woodeson as Cardinal Bergoglio.

What made Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation even more controversial is that he would have known that his likely successor would be his theological opposite - Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was widely rumoured to have come second in the conclave ballot that elected Pope Benedict XVI

Why then did Pope Benedict XVI resign? The answer is that we don’t really know.

It is this question and answer that forms the subject matter of Anthony McCarten’s beautifully produced play, The Two Popes. Everything about this play has been produced to the absolute peak of professionalism.

Anton Lesser as Pope Benedict XVI and Nicholas Woodeson as Cardinal Bergoglio.

The sets are utterly gorgeous, as are the costumes, lighting and sound design. The two popes are played by some of the greatest actors that the UK has ever produced; Anton Lessor, as Pope Benedict XVI and Nicholas Woodeson, as Cardinal Bergoglio.

Anton Lesser as Pope Benedict XVI and Nicholas Woodeson as Cardinal Bergoglio.

Despite all these exceptional attributes, I felt that the play as a form of riveting entertainment, was largely unsuccessful because it is based on a question to which we don’t have an answer. This means that there isn’t really a story with a strong narrative arc.

Lynsey Beauchamp as Sister Brigitta and Anton Lesser as Pope Benedict XVI.

The play is largely made up of Pope Benedict XVI speeches about the fact that he wants to resign but does not communicate any clear or well thought out reason for such a momentous decision with such momentous consequences – and this makes him seem superficial – which is deeply unsatisfying.

Anton Lesser as Pope Benedict XVI and Angela Jones as unnamed nun.

I would refer those who think that such subject matter can’t be gripping to Robert Harris’s novel Conclave (about which I’ve written a mini review here). Harris writes about a fictional conclave – the election that elects a new pope. It is authentic, riveting and respectful in a way that The Two Popes is not.

Leaphia Darko as Sister Sophia

The Two Popes is a beautifully produced play - extraordinary in its production values but, in my opinion, ordinary in its story telling.


All images provided to me by the Oxford Playhouse and taken by Manuel Harlan.

If you enjoyed reading this review, you may enjoy reading my other theatre reviews.


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