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LUTHER REVIEWS

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Almost nailing Luther - The revival of John Osborne's 1961 play on the great Reformer is flawed but well worth seeing

Luther
Royal National Theatre

London
Dates

Ends 14 Nov

Price

32-10

There are many good things about Peter Gill's production of 'Luther' at the National Theatre. The third act of John Osborne's 1961 play about the father of European Reformation is not one of them. The first half of the play, beginning with Luther's induction to the monastery of the Augustinian Eremites at Erfurt and ending with the nailing of his 95 theses for disputation against indulgences on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, proceeds with a symphonic grandeur and often it thrills. The second half, taking in the Diet of Worms, the Peasants' War and Luther's later life as a paterfamilias, fails to deliver on the promise of the first, although it lets us down gently, it must be said.

Luther is familiar Osborne territory: an intense psychological study of a flawed hero pitted against the world. Rufus Sewell, who last appeared at the National in Tom Stoppard's 'Arcadia', is commanding in the role. Osborne's Luther is a tortured soul from start to finish, whose early life as a monk is blighted by his feelings of unworthiness before God. He broods, he clutches at his constipated gut, he flies off the handle. Sewell delivers his lines like Ted Neeley's Messiah in 'Jesus Christ Superstar': tense and clenched, concealing a volcano of passions. With his flashing eyes and jutting cheekbones, it is clear he can erupt molten theology at any moment, and half way through Act II, he does. The Philippics he delivers from the pulpit against the worship of holy relics and the Pope (a "glittering worm in excrement") are hair-raising.

Sewell is ably supported by Richard Griffiths and Timothy West, and a chorus of black-cowled brothers who march up and down the stalls singing Salve Reginas. It is hard to imagine such a grand staging anywhere but on the Olivier stage. "It's all very impressive", says the yeoman Lucas after witnessing the young Martin's acceptance into the order. And it is. The carved gothic entrance to the cloister dominates like the gate of heaven, and more often than not, a sepulchral backlight streams through its portal, casting long shadows downstage and bringing up Rufus Sewell's deadly cheekbones. In the first act, it's almost enough to put the fear of God into you.

So where does it all go slightly wrong? Act III Scene 2 is where. After the irresistibly dramatic thesis-nailing, papal summons and the Diet of Worms, where Luther defends his heretical doctrines like a boxer, four years pass. We get the Peasants' War in a series of earnest flashlit tableaux, and then Anthony Woodall appears as the Knight, and tells us what's been happening in downtown Saxony since Luther famously declared "Here I stand; God help me; I can do no more." The peasants have risen up in Lutheran defiance, and been put down with princely precision. Luther, following St Paul, has stood himself on the side of secular authority, and betrayed the just cause of the peasantry. In the last scene of the play we catch up with ex-monk Martin in his home, older, fatter and married, and harking back to the days when he used to set men against their fathers with the force of his theology.

In 'Luther', John Osborne explores some of the conflicts between Catholic and Protestant churches with great clarity. Scripture against tradition, faith against good works, individual against society, suffering against comfort, immanence against transcendence, it's all there, carried along by some of the most toothsome prose you're likely to hear this side of Shakespeare. The problem is, the play seems to lack a denouement. Changing tack as it does in Act III from religion to politics, Osborne effectively puts out Luther's fire.

Having said that, this new production (the first for 30 years) is well worth seeing. Sewell's rebellious young lion, Richard Griffith's pantomime Dominican, Malcolm Sinclair's subtle cardinal and Timothy West's contemplative Vicar General are vital characters in the hands of masterful actors. That, plus a gripping first half, is enough to create a memorable spectacle.

Jan Dorosz

 
 

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