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A CurtainUp London Review
by Lizzie Loveridge
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To paraphrase Alan Bennet, the National Theatre is going "back forty years" for a revival of John Osborne's 1961 play Luther on its main stage, the Olivier. In 1956 Osborne had set the London theatrical world alight with his first play Look Back in Anger with a rebellious hero, Jimmy Porter and so Osborne came to a famous religious rebel in Martin Luther (Rufus Sewell), the man who originated Protestantism and was responsible for the break with the Roman Catholic church at "The Reformation". The play is an historical based account of Luther's life from his early years as a postulant Augustinian monk, Brother Martin, through the debates with the church, his excommunication in 1520 to his death in 1546. It is a large work, over three hours long, and the National has given us a suitably large and weighty production.
The history is well annotated in the programme, an essential item for those who need to brush up on their sixteenth century European events and personalities. The first scenes are set when Luther was twelve years old, the son of a successful miner, Hans Luther (Geoffrey Hutchings) who is opposed to his son entering the monastery. The advent of the circus surrounding the monk Johann Tetzel (Richard Griffiths), who is selling indulgences to people who want to buy forgiveness for their sins and reduce time to be served in purgatory, disturbs Luther's sense of what Christianity should be about. In reading St Paul, Luther becomes convinced of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In 1517 Luther famously nails his "95 theses" to the church door in Wittenberg. He is subsequently called before Cardinal Cajetan (Malcolm Sinclair) to retract, he debates with members of the church and is excommunicated by the Pope Leo X (Mark Tandy) in 1520. The unforgettably named Diet of Wörms, a German medieval assembly of princes, tries to find a solution by holding a debate between Johannes von Eck (Neil Stacy) and Luther. From the 1520s Luther published the New Testament in German, writes a new prayer service in German and marries the ex-nun Katharina von Bora (Maxine Peake). Luther's Reformation is joined by Zwingli and Calvin. In Germany the cause of the Peasants' Revolt and the Knights' Revolt are in part attributed to Luther's preaching.
This is a very atmospherically staged production with a great sense of era. There are scenes in cloisters, an imposing, larger than life, carved crucifix, vast Norman carved cathedral columns, a huge heraldic shield dominating the proceedings at Wörms. There is ecclesiastical music and lit candles, incense waved and processions of tonsured monks and bejewelled German princes and hunting scenes with Irish wolfhounds. Most memorable is the marketplace where Johannes Tetzel addresses the audience in an all too effective sales hype that had me holding out my hot, sticky quarter florin to buy an indulgence. The vulgar commercialism was a witty exposé of the corruption and commercialisation of the Church. Luther preaches from an austere tall pulpit, the lighting casting as diagonal cross shadow. This contrasts with the gold leaf luxury of papal furniture. Memorably Luther preaches through the smoke after he burns the Papal Bull, a letter of direction. Alison Chitty's designs are magnificent.
Rufus Sewell again handles a heavyweight part with seeming ease. He is rarely off the stage in three and a half hours as he plays Luther troubled by his constipation and his conscience. Sewell brings a likeable humanity to the most intelligent monk of his generation. We see Luther troubled at first by strange dreams, mature into a man of conviction, "Here I stand. I can do no other." Malcolm Sinclair is outstanding as the arch bureaucrat, an oily merchant of spin, persuasive and sinister, Cardinal Cajetan. Richard Griffiths too has a massive stage presence as the friar, Tetzel, worldly and cold heartedly ambitious. Timothy West is a gentle and influential mentor at the university.
Osborne's text has some moments of laughter, on the proliferation of (fake) holy relics, "How is it that if Christ has twelve apostles, eighteen of them are buried in Germany?" and Luther on his bowells (again), "Who knows if I break wind in Wittenberg, they might smell it in Rome?" and Tetzel on Luther, "These Augustinians don't have much fibre." I found the scene with the Knight trying to explain some of the wars that followed Luther least effective, but credit must go to Peter Gill, and indeed Rufus Sewell, for keeping our attention for three hours on a relatively serious subject.
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