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The Independent

Luther, NT Olivier Theatre, London
John Osborne's angry young monk
Paul Taylor
10 October 2001

John Osborne did not, as far as we know, ever hammer 95 theses into a cathedral door - but that was not for want of a nail, or indeed a thesis. It would be hard to think of a more fitting historical subject for him than Martin Luther: the angry young monk who took on the corrupt Catholic Church unleashed onto the stage by the angry young man who took on the moribund English theatre. Like Luther, in whom revelation and constipation were intimately related, Osborne tended to think from the gut. My appetite was whetted not just by the intriguing prospect of oblique self-portraiture, but because Luther seems to exhibit, to the point of parody, all those rare qualities that justify a revival in the vast arena of the Olivier.
It's a neglected work by a major dramatist (not seen in London since its Royal Court premiere in 1961); it has a teemingcast that no unsubsidised theatre could afford; it tackles a huge public theme. The result, though, left me feeling numb with respect rather than tingling with a sense of discovery. Peter Gill's clear, confident production, with its imposing design of Romanesque doorways, certainly does its best to colonise the space. The symmetrically swarming monks are choreographed so well you keep expecting them to break into a chorus of "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Matt Luther?". The Olivier as a prime site for direct-to-audience address is reconfirmed when Richard Griffiths's campy, teasing Tetzel, the outrageous indulgence-seller, works the house like a music hall star, or when Rufus Sewell's charismatically haunted, hollow-cheeked Luther spits out his set-piece sermons like someone vomiting red-hot tin tacks.
Yet, to my eye, this epic venue also exposes and magnifies the play's weaknesses - in particular its failure to throw into sharp focus the connections between what happened in the claustrophobic world of Luther's psyche and what happened in the world outside.In the light of the events of 11 September, Gill has naturally claimed that there's an uncomfortable timeliness in reviving a play about the father of one form of religious fundamentalism. But Osborne's Luther is no precursor of Osama bin Laden. On the contrary, he is caught up in an agonising contradiction: the prophet of a terrifying individualism of the spirit ("No man can die
for another, or believe for another or answer for another") can't help but feel dubious when such ideas start a mass movement.The ambiguity of Luther's response to the Peasants' War is typically under-dramatised. Indeed, you might be left wondering what the hell is happening here when an army of the said peasants rush on and are slaughtered in a succession of Goya-esque freeze-frames.
The cast - which includes Timothy West (attractively humane and wise as Luther's sorely tried spiritual adviser) and Malcolm Sinclair who is all lethal suavity as Cardinal Cajetan - is so big that there is no need for the doubling of any speaking roles. But this highlights the wastefulness with which Osborne picks up and discards subjects. Take the conflict between fathers and sons. The hero begins his
revolution by defying his miner father (Geoffrey Hutchings) who wants him to embark on a worldly career. Having asserted his crucial role, the patriarch then vanishes and the theme is developed only desultorily until the ironic final image of Luther, now himself a child-cradling father, in the anti-climactic closing scene. An honourable evening, and a long one.


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